We have learned hard lessons during the pandemic. Although it looks and still looks like the difficult year we wish we could leave behind, January represents a symbolic stage, new opportunities, occasions to reflect, to make changes, to do better.
Schools at all levels have adapted to the challenges by quickly moving to online classes, offering hybrid classes, and finally returning in person. We knew that students had to keep learning and that the economy, which had been badly damaged, was going to need a steady pool of talent to rebuild our country’s economic and professional infrastructure. The students we train to become nurses, doctors, business owners, technologists, scientists and more would be essential to our regional and national recoveries.
So, as we begin a new year, I am perplexed to read that Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the country, lags behind most states when it comes to financial aid for students who want attend university. Much of this support comes in the form of grants and low-interest loans to prospective undergraduate students. Without it, Black, Latino, and Indigenous students are disproportionately limited in being able to afford a post-secondary education.
Only 28% of eligible students in Connecticut received a need-based state grant in fiscal year 2019—11,093 of 39,389 eligible students—and the estimated state grant per undergraduate enrollment, at $253 per student, was unfortunately lower than the national average of $688. In addition, the percentage allocated to need-based aid in neighboring states was considerably higher than here at home. New York invested 15%, New Jersey 23%, Vermont and Pennsylvania tied at 22%, and Connecticut trailed significantly at 3%.
These numbers are sobering as Connecticut reels from the impact of a shortage of workers in the health care sector and in most professions and businesses large and small. And they’re especially pathetic when you compare average state spending in New York, which averages $889 per student, and New Jersey, which spends more than $1,600 per student.
It’s even more embarrassing when compared to other Northeastern states, especially in terms of competition for students, workers, and new residents. Consider grant spending as a percentage of state tax support for higher education operating expenses: the national average is 13.41%, but Connecticut has a dismal 2.99%.
And across the region, where competition for students and workers is fierce, it’s shameful to consider the contrast in percentage change in financial aid and state funding between 2008 and 2019. Spending in Vermont increased by 19.2%; in Rhode Island, 47%. Pennsylvania and New Jersey increased their spending by 32.6% and 34% respectively, but Connecticut’s spending fell 57.5% over the same period.
The cost of reduced admissions is also significant. In fall 2020, enrollment among recent high school graduates was 6.9% lower than in the fall 2019 term, with declines concentrated among low-income, high-poverty high school students, as well as high schools serving higher proportions of blacks and Latinos. students. And applications for student loans have plummeted.
Adding insult to injury, Connecticut is a highly indebted state for college graduates, among the worst in the nation, in part because the state does not fund higher education enough. The average debt for a senior graduate in Connecticut is $35,853, the fifth highest in the nation. And that cost is beyond the wallet of our graduates – it also reflects a migration of talent from Connecticut to neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York, where students can find more generous financial aid and scholarships. And once they graduate, those students may not return to Connecticut.
Solutions to address critical labor shortages include accelerated short-term training and retraining programs; continued state investment and strong oversight, particularly to address education quality and persistent equity gaps; and allocate available public support on the basis of need, not simply merit.
In 2021, the Connecticut Legislature funded $15 million per year for a free community college, which is allocated to students regardless of their financial status. This is a bandage; although funding for higher education is essential, it should be better targeted. Students with greater financial need are more likely to need loans to cover tuition, and need-based state aid can help reduce students’ need for borrowing.
Additionally, Congress should double the maximum Pell Grant to help students from low- and middle-income backgrounds cover college costs, including costs beyond tuition, without acquiring nasty student debt.
We cannot just pay lip service to our commitment to employers, workers and economic renewal. As the Connecticut Legislature prepares to meet for its winter 2022 session, it is imperative that lawmakers consider their long-term responsibility to help secure a more reliable economic future for all of us by making college attendance in our state more affordable and viable.