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Class of '22: State university welcomes you

Applying for college is not for sissies. After working hard — or not hard enough — in high school and before indebting themselves for years, seniors have an anxious year of guesstimating which colleges have the course of study they want, if they even get accepted and can afford to go.

The agony of applying will soon give way to the thrill of automatic acceptance for new graduates of Connecticut high schools, if their college of choice is one of the four in the state university system. Eastern, Southern, Western and Central Connecticut state universities will now by law be open to any student who meets criteria for grade point average and class rank. The Connecticut Automatic Admissions Program passed the legislature last week.

It is late in the game, compared to higher education opportunities in some other states, but the program is mandated to be ready by April 2022. A University of Connecticut program, the Alliance Pathway, which rewards excellence by individual students in underperforming high schools, will also start next year. UConn will accept students in the top 10% of class rank in the state's 33 lowest-performing districts, and the top 10% in those schools whose families are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. As of 2020 that included Groton, New London and Norwich.

And at the community college level, the point of entry for many, new "corequisite" courses in math and English will assist the large numbers of underprepared students by enrolling them in the regular course and the preparedness class at the same time.

An influx of students would be a boost also for the four state universities, community colleges, and some independent colleges that may take the automatic admissions approach. All areas of post-secondary enrollment dropped during the pandemic, community colleges the most, at 15%.

The new measures reflect the growing willingness of state government to support the virtually universal need for post-secondary education or career training, with the possible exception of technical high school graduates, who have already trained for a trade. Higher education is not only about getting ahead. It's about getting one's young head on straight, growing up intellectually as well as physically and emotionally, and having a focused next step after high school.

The beneficiaries of the new opportunities could well be students who are the first in their families to continue after high school, and indeed that was one of Gov. Ned Lamont's motivations for introducing the plans. "Increasing postsecondary enrollment and success, particularly among first-generation, low-income, and minority students, is good for students and our state's economy," the governor said.

Not quite good enough, though. For higher education to really benefit both students and the economy, it cannot strangle students with debt. College is not cheap for anyone. Katie Hallisey, a New London-based college access program manager Higher Edge, which assists first-generation students to get into, afford and stick with college, confirms that affordability is a far bigger obstacle than acceptance.

The governor pointed out last winter that the federal government would be the state's main source for funding access to college through the FAFSA financial aid application program; he wants completion of the complicated FAFSA to become a high school graduation requirement. During the pandemic, when Higher Edge was forced to take its counseling sessions online, the organization moved its FAFSA assistance to one-on-one teleconferences with students and their families. That worked so well that Higher Edge and other counseling agencies across the state will repeat the online help next year.

If the governor is serious about getting more federal Pell grants into the hands of Connecticut students and about requiring that they apply, he will need to mandate similar sessions for any family who wants one.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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