Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Sen. Beth Bye at a press conference last week (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — What does free community college tuition look like in Connecticut? That’s a question the legislature’s Higher Education Committee is exploring this legislative session. 

The committee asked legislation to be drafted that starts a conversation about what tuition-free community college might look like in the state.

There are eight bills that simply say the state will provide tuition-free community college to Connecticut residents. State funding and various partnerships with businesses represent the primary mechanisms to pay for the measure, but it is not definitive.

The legislation will likely be expanded and amended as it works its way through the committee process. 

Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the House and are evenly divided in the Senate, echoed the need for some form of tution relief in their Democratic Values agenda, its blueprint and platform for the legislative session. It makes a broad call for tuition-free community college, although the details are less defined. The agenda goes a step further than many previous tuition initiatives, calling for “unprecedented” investment in technical high-schools across the state, including opening a number of new schools around the state. The idea is to create a pipeline to the workforce for these students.

Connecticut currently has 12 community colleges. The annual price of attending community college in Connecticut totals almost $4,300 and an estimated 49,000 students attended community college either full or part-time in 2017, according to the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

Not everyone in the General Assembly shares the same ideas about what tuition-free college should look like in practice. Some maintain that a tution completion program would better serve the needs of Connecticut’s workforce and prove less burdensome on the state budget, as well.

During a hearing of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee earlier this month, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, called for a college completion plan that would distinguish Connecticut from other states with similar tuition-free models.

“The reason ours is unique compared to the other states is that we’re talking about free college completion,” she said. Bye felt that this approach helps get students through the final phases of college process, as the state helps accelerate their completion through tuition relief. Bye argued, “This is a more conservative approach where you’re saying kids who have made it halfway, who have proven they can pass the classes, have a certain GPA, we’re going to accelerate your completion because we need you, we need you in our workforce.”

Bye also acknowledged the financial difficulties of the plan, saying, “This might not be the year that we afford it, but let’s have this committee have the vision and leadership and start this conversation.”

Rep. Timothy LeGeyt, R-Canton, expressed his opposition to free college completion on financial grounds, saying, “I can’t imagine a framework where this state in its present situation could support a proposal or program to provide free college for people, even if it is just on completion”.

Two of Connecticut’s neighboring states, Rhode Island and New York, have some form of tuition-free community college.

Rhode Island offers in-state tuition to students who hold grade point average of 2.5 and above, while New York’s model goes even further. The New York plan rolled out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2017 offers free tuition at any state university or community college student from a family with an income of less than $100,000. Other states, like Tennessee and Louisiana, have introduced initiatives to provide tuition relief over the past few years, and similar measures became part of the national conversation during the 2016 presidential campaign.