Mansfield, CT (Hartford Business Journal) — The inaugural cohort of a free tuition program for low-income students at the University of Connecticut might be the last, as UConn pauses the program amid COVID-19’s assault on the university’s finances.
UConn President Thomas Katsouleas, who enacted the “Connecticut Commitment” program last year as one of his first acts as the university’s chief executive, announced in a Wednesday morning Board of Trustees meeting plans to discontinue the program.
“Pausing the program is the most difficult and painful decision I’ve had to make since arriving here,” Katsouleas said. “While unfortunate, I believe this is a prudent and necessary choice to make at this time.”
The Connecticut Commitment works as a “last dollar” program for students whose parents make less than $50,000 per year. These students almost always receive Pell grants and other financial assistance, but the Connecticut Commitment money fills funding gaps for students who qualify (for example, if a qualified student was short $2,500 after financial aid for tuition, the program would provide them with that money).
Students received an average of $2,600 through the program in its first year, according to UConn.
While the initial cohort of 260 students currently enrolled in the program cost about $700,000 in the first year, the price was expected to grow to about $5 million per year as more students took advantage of it, Katsouleas said. Pandemic-related financial distress could also enlarge the number of qualifying students and overwhelm UConn’s ability to fund the program through a mix of philanthropic and operating budget funds.
“I agree that we can’t make commitments to new students if we’re not confident we can keep that promise,” Trustee Jeanine A. Gouin said. “Yet I feel very strongly that we need to continue to support those to whom promises have previously been made.”
UConn’s fundraising for the program initially looked good, including a $1 million gift from Stamford-based Synchrony Financial and gifts from about 500 other donors before the pandemic hit in mid-March.
Discontinuing the Connecticut Commitment program comes after UConn has made other cost-savings measures as it bleeds revenue, partly as a result of reduced density and activity on campus to quell the spread of COVID-19. In August UConn canceled its 2020 football season, and that was after a June decision to end four other sports programs: women’s rowing, men’s tennis, men’s cross country and swimming, and diving, as the school projected a $47 million budget shortfall for the fall semester.
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