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University of Connecticut Pauses Free Tuition Program Due to COVID-19 Financial Strains

The University of Connecticut paused its free tuition program, Connecticut Commitment, for low-income students, citing budget concerns amid COVID-19 as the reason for the halt. The program, which is about a year old, offered free tuition to all in-state students with annual family incomes of $50,000 or less.

The decision worries college affordability advocates, who fear more hits to scholarship programs as the pandemic continues.

“Pausing the program is the hardest decision I’ve had to make since arriving here,” University of Connecticut President Dr. Thomas Katsouleas told the Board of Trustees last Wednesday.

While discontinued for the time being, Connecticut Commitment’s first cohort of 260 students will continue to receive free tuition through their four years in college.

The program was projected to cost a million dollars per year, and this year, the expense will ultimately be $700,000 for the university to fulfill its promise to students already in the program. Even though that figure is actually less than expected, the pandemic made charting out the program’s financial future too unpredictable, said Nathan Fuerst, vice president for enrollment planning and management.

The plan was to support the program entirely through philanthropy, but gifts have slowed due to the economic downturn. As a result, “we thought it was prudent to hit pause with bringing an additional class on with the fall 2021 class,” he said.

According to Fuerst, the biggest strain on University of Connecticut’s budget has been the loss of revenue from room and board. Though undergraduate enrollment increased, the university’s residence halls are operating at 40% capacity, which enables social distancing and made re-opening possible. But it was a financial hit.

The school is working to tackle a $28 million deficit, according The Connecticut Mirror.

In spite of the financial challenges, Fuerst emphasized that this is a pause – not a full stop – for Connecticut Commitment.

“It’s definitely a pause,” he said. “That’s really crucial that people understand that. Our board and our president continue to be committed to this idea. If we were to have somebody come out of the woodwork who would say, ‘You know what, I want to actually put a significant amount of money behind this program and initiative,’ then it would make it an easy decision to re-start the program.”

Fuerst also stressed that almost 80% of the university’s students with a household income below $50,000 already had tuition covered by existing aid programs when Connecticut Commitment started.

“We’re continuing all of those aid programs,” he said. “This isn’t a situation where we’re putting something on hold and, all of a sudden, a substantial swath of students are now not getting financial aid.”

His peers at other institutions are wrestling with similar decisions. As scholarship programs become harder to afford during the pandemic, he sees a “growing” pressure on federal financial aid.

In light of that trend, Mamie Voight, vice president of research policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, hopes policymakers will step up financial aid funding.

“Now is the time that institutions – and federal and state governments – should be investing in students, not disinvesting,” she wrote in an email to Diverse. “In addition to at least doubling the Pell Grant at the federal level, we need to increase funding at the state and institutional levels for need-based aid – and at the very least ensure scarce dollars are spent first and foremost on the students with the greatest financial need.”

This is particularly important amid a reckoning with “America’s historical racial crisis,” she added.

“Those who are being disproportionately impacted by these crises – Black, brown, and those from low-income backgrounds – are precisely the communities with most to gain from higher education and least able to afford it without assistance,” Voight said. “Yet, high prices are leading too many low-income students and students of color to stop out – or never even begin – college.”

The likely decrease in scholarship opportunities worries Craig Robinson, president of College Possible, a non-profit focused on college access for low-income students.

“Certainly we’re hearing that colleges are tightening their belts in response to lower enrollment trends,” he said. “There are concerns about what the downstream implications will be for available funds for students.”

Even before COVID-19, he found that searching for scholarships was a “constant concern” for low-income students, and now, that concern is “heightened.” For them, scholarships have “long been a saving grace” and an “important bridge to ensure that students once enrolled are able to actually persist and graduate.”

Right now, College Possible is advising students to fill out their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) documents and to consider competitive outside scholarships.

But he also hopes colleges will ultimately find “creative solutions” to continue existing scholarships like Connecticut Commitment through corporate partnerships or donations from alumni who have benefitted from similar opportunities.

While he recognizes universities are cash-strapped, scholarships have an “exponential return on investment,” Robinson said. “These scholarships are really vital. They’re important not only for the institution but to the country as a whole to ensure that we’re investing in the future of our nation. So, I would urge colleges to be judicial as they consider where they have to tighten their bootstraps versus where it may be more beneficial to invest even further.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected].

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