Christine Stuart photo
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Christine Stuart photo)

University High School of Science and Engineering students told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday that he needs to make it easier to apply for financial aid for college.

The bulk of juniors and seniors who participated in a roundtable discussion with Duncan, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal know because they have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms. Filling out the form could help them access some of the $150 billion in federal student aid.

The Hartford Schools are participating in a federal program to help increase the number of students applying. Over the past few years, the completion rate has gone from 36 percent to 51 percent, but Duncan wasn’t impressed.

“There is no reason for you not to fill out the form,” Duncan said. “I don’t care about how much money your family has or doesn’t have, there’s an opportunity for you to go to school.”

Duncan said they were able to eliminate about a third of the questions on the application and have gotten it down to an average of 29-minutes. Duncan said he’d ultimately like to have no form, “but we’re not quite there yet.”

“We have to make it easier. We have to make it more transparent,” Duncan said. “It’s tough enough if you have two college-educated parents, but if you’re a first generation college goer, new to the country, it’s too much right now.”

But really what the students feared Monday was the increased cost of college and how they will find a way to pay for it. The question students are beginning to ask themselves is if the degree they want to obtain will land them a job that helps them pay off their student loans. The calculation is different for everyone.

“Depends what you major in. Depends on what the job prospects are down the road,” Duncan said. “What troubles me is so many great folks wanted to become teachers, who wanted to work at a nonprofit or social service agency, but they had $60,000 or $80,000 in loans and they couldn’t do that. So one of the things we put in place is a public loan forgiveness.”

He said if you decided to go into public service, then after 10 years in that profession the loan is forgiven, but that’s only federal loans and doesn’t apply to private loans.

Christine Stuart photo
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sits next to Jose Ortiz and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Christine Stuart photo)

There are 7,000 institutions of higher education in the United States, Duncan said.

“There’s a right choice for every single young person, but it’s been hard to navigate,” he said referring to President Barack Obama’s College Scorecard initiative announced in his 2013 State of the Union address.

He reminded reporters during a press conference that the $150 billion being given out by the federal government each year is the taxpayers’ money. He said they want to make sure colleges and universities are offering the students a good education for a good price.

He said it’s about having more money go to places that embrace inclusion and transparency and where it’s not just about access, it’s about completion.

“There are schools out there that get hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid today and have 20 to 30 percent of their students defaulting on their student loans,” Murphy said. “At the very least, the report card the administration is developing will help students see whether or not a school is going to allow them to get a return on their investment.”

Murphy said he’s introduced legislation that would allow the Education Department to tie aid to schools to those performance criteria. He said the first step, however, is transparency.

“We want people to make great choices and have much more information available to them and their families,” Duncan said.

Blumenthal said he also believes there should be an opportunity for students to be able to finance their consolidated student loans, like they would a house or a car.

Connecticut is trying to do its best to decrease the cost of higher education, too, Malloy said. There is a governor’s scholarship program that pays up to $4,500 for a four-year institution and $3,500 for an associates degree at a community college.

But the cost is still prohibitive for many students whose parents never went to college.

“My number one piece of advice for a successful college experience: get up for breakfast,” Malloy told the students.

He told them that the discipline they will get from that decision to get up and eat breakfast will lead to better decisions throughout their college career. 

Jose Ortiz, who will be attending the University of Connecticut, said attending the University of Hartford School of Science and Engineering really gave him the support he needed to get ahead. He said it was a “lifeline” for him and students like him who come from broken homes.

Junior Knox Stennett, who is going to Hawaii Pacific University, said his mom pushed him to reach his goals, but he didn’t really like school until he started attending the early college high school.

Students who attend the school, which focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, have an opportunity to earn college credits. Principal Martin Folan said there are some students who earn enough college credit that they arrive at a university as a senior. There are others who are able to skip a semester or one year.

That will save them thousands of dollars in students loans. Folan said many who earn the credits have planned to go on to graduate school.

“The goal isn’t to go to college,” Duncan said. “The goal is to graduate. It might take you three years, might take you four. It took me five years to get through college.”