Contributed photo
Sen. Beth Bye (Contributed photo)

HARTFORD, CT — Free college tuition could cost the state up to $30 million, but Democrats in the legislature believe that’s a bargain for a well-trained workforce.

Democratic lawmakers released their version of what a free-college program would look like Thursday at a Legislative Office Building press conference.

The bill, HB 5371, is designed to provide scholarships to low- and moderate-income students in two different forms: Free 2 Start and Free 2 Finish.

The “Free 2 Start” portion of the bill would allow students in good standing to start at a community college for free. The “Free 2 Finish” part would allow students to obtain their associate’s or bachelor’s degree for free for the last two years.

To be eligible for the plan, students must have graduated from a Connecticut high school, and must meet specific family income guidelines. Students with a combined family income of $72,900 or less for a family of four could qualify.

Rep. Gregory Haddad, D-Mansfield, explained that the “Free 2 Finish” portion has all of the same pre-conditions as “Free 2 Start,” but includes a stipulation that students participate in a volunteer-based mentorship program and counseling.

“This benefit, Free 2 Finish, is stackable on Free 2 Start,” he said. “So we envision a system where low-income students, moderate-income students can go free to community college directly out of high school and then go on to use their benefit after they earn their associates degree to earn their bachelor’s degree.”

Haddad elaborated that after the completion of the “Free 2 Start” portion, students undergo an academic audit to track their progress; students in good academic standings who have met the qualifications can then go on to complete a four-year degree, at any state school, including the University of Connecticut.

Pat O’Neil, a spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, pushed back against the plan. He asked, “Given that the state faces almost a $200 million dollar deficit, how are they going to pay for it”? He continued, “Democrats want free college tuition like people in hell want ice water.”

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, is still hoping there is some bipartisan potential for the bill.

“This is not some crazy liberal idea in Connecticut, free college,” Bye said. “In fact, 23 states in the past couple of years have introduced bills. Republican states, Democratic states recognize how important this is.”

She said nearly 70 percent of Connecticut jobs will require a college degree, and this program will “increase the number of high school seniors who complete financial aid forms and see college as affordable.”

Elena Tapia, President of Connecticut State University American Association of University Professors, commended the legislation. She called the bill “a step in the right direction to creating a public higher education system that is accessible to all residents of Connecticut.”

Only 34 percent of students completed their 2-year community college degree within six years — placing Connecticut 33rd out of 50 states, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

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 to students 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.

If the plan is approved, it will go into effect in January 2019, making Connecticut only the second state in New England to offer free community college to in-state residents.