In what should not come as a shock to anyone, Connecticut is failing to meet the educational needs of its minority and economically underprivileged students when it comes to college preparation and degree completion. And that failure is going to have long-term consequences when it comes to hiring and retaining workers in our state, attracting new businesses or keeping companies and organizations from fleeing to more business-friendly states with larger, better-prepared talent pools.

While much has been written about the state’s widening achievement gap at the K-12 level, less attention has been paid to the state’s attainment gap: the difference between the percentage of white and minority adults that hold a post-secondary credential or degree. According to a recently released report by the Education Trust, a national nonprofit organization, Connecticut has the largest attainment gap between white and African American adults in the country and close to the largest gap between white and Hispanic adults when it comes to post-secondary degree attainment.

Ed Trust found that in Connecticut, progress is being made in the state’s higher-education institutions to improve degree attainment rates among all student populations. Since 2000, attainment rates among African American and Hispanic students have increased at a rate higher than average for both subgroups. In fact, the attainment rates among African American students have seen above-average change with gains of over 10 percentage points, ranking Connecticut fourth in the country for this progress. Hispanic student attainment rates have improved 6.7 percent, the eighth-largest increase in the country. 

However, overall, the attainment rates for African American and Hispanic students are just above average, and the attainment gap has not improved. This is problematic for our state because, increasingly, jobs here will require some form of a post-secondary credential or degree.  According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2025 Connecticut will require a workforce in which 70 percent have some post-secondary training to fill the needs of our state’s employers. This will require production of 300,000 more graduates. The only way we will meet this goal is to ensure broader access among all of our state’s citizens.

Higher education institutions in Connecticut, public and private, are focused on ensuring access to an affordable, high-quality education. The State, however, needs to do its part and reaffirm its commitment to state need-based aid, to ensure all students have access to a post-secondary education.

The state’s need-based financial aid program, the Roberta Willis Scholarship Program, disproportionately supports low-income minority students in the state. It has been on the chopping block year after year. Since 2008, state need-based financial aid has been cut nearly $30 million, or 50 percent. A recent report from the Hechinger Group found only 20 percent of eligible students get a state need-based grant in Connecticut. This puts us in the top five states with most unmet need.

According to Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, the independent colleges have increased institutional aid more than 110 percent in the past 10 years. “Higher education is the great equalizer in this country, and ensuring access through funding need-based financial aid is critical,” she says. “The independent colleges award over half of the bachelor’s degrees earned by minority students. The state needs to similarly prioritize by boosting funding for the state’s need-based aid program and establishing an infrastructure that focuses on closing the attainment gap to ensure we have the educated workforce our state needs for its economy to thrive.

At Sacred Heart University, we embrace our role in addressing Connecticut’s attainment gap. For the 2017/2018 academic year, we awarded institutional grants and scholarships in the amount of $14,047,470 to 1,022 Connecticut students with demonstrated financial need. That included $244,575 to 24 Fairfield students, $1,282,247 to 90 Bridgeport students and $497,017 to 41 Trumbull students. In addition, SHU provides endowed scholarships, supports the federal Yellow Ribbon program for veterans and offers discounts on tuition for community agencies and organizations, as well as tuition remission to employees and employee dependents who demonstrate need.

SHU also enrolls 11th- and 12th-grade students from area public schools who meet admission requirements in appropriate and available courses for college credit at reduced tuition through our Taste of College program. During the academic year, the early-college program, which is tuition-free for Bridgeport students. And we sponsor Horizons at Sacred Heart University, which serves children from the Bridgeport public and cathedral education cluster schools via K-8 academic programs in Saturday academies during the school year and a six-week summer enrichment program. Upward Bound at SHU is a federally funded college preparatory program for high school students. The goal is to increase the rate at which students complete secondary education and enroll in and graduate from institutions of post-secondary education. It operates September through mid-August, ideally with students beginning the summer before their freshman year until their high school graduation.

Sacred Heart University and our higher-education peers are doing our part to help level the attainment gap, and to keep Connecticut’s economy and workforce robust now and for the future. But without increased financial support from the State, this will be a losing battle for our residents, students and employers. The consequences of inaction or further cuts will strike a serious blow to Connecticut’s ability to remain competitive, keep young workers in our state and attract new companies and families. 

John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

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