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Students Speak Out About Importance of State's Scholarship Program

Students and college leaders said Monday that if the Republican budget passed by the General Assembly stands, students will be left without the state scholarship aid they were counting on for second semester.

“Honest if that scholarship went away, I wouldn’t be able to finish my bachelor’s degree, I wouldn’t be able to have my full-time job I have lined up after I graduate,” said Kevin Contreras, a senior at the University of Hartford who says he has a job offer from Hartford Hospital.

Sydney Parker, a senior at Goodwin College said that she already works 30 hours a week to help pay her bills. Without state aid through the Roberta B. Willis Scholarship program, she’d have to work full time. “And that wouldn’t really work for me, trying to finish my degree this June as well as doing all my homework and applying for graduate programs.”

The students and college leaders were at a news conference at the University of St. Joseph with Democratic legislators who spoke out against the Republican-written budget, which was vetoed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last week after its passage by the General Assembly. However, there is a GOP effort to override the veto in a special session scheduled for Tuesday.

Jennifer Widness, the president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges said the budget includes a provision that says no new awards will be given after July 1, 2017. In addition, Widness said, the provision states all students currently receiving the Willis scholarship will continue to receive it as long as they meet eligibility requirements.

But Widness said the funding for the program under the GOP budget is $20 million, but was cut to $7.8 million for 2019.

At the start of the semester, the budget was in effect through a governor’s executive order with $36 million earmarked for the scholarship program.

Widness said that the Office of Higher Education, which distributes half of the scholarship funds in the fall and half in the spring, has awarded $18 million to Connecticut students this semester.

If the Republican budget takes effect, she said, only $2 million will be left in the program for second semester for the approximately 14,000 students served by the program.

Rhona C. Free, president of St. Joseph, said almost 200 of the college’s 700 recent bachelor’s graduates relied on the scholarship to pay their bills. A fifth of the university’s students get the scholarship, she said.

“These students will graduate, they will go into careers where there is great demand, and we could not make up the gap in their ability to pay their tuition bills if this program didn’t exist,” Free said.

The scholarships, which go to students at state and private colleges, provide up to $5,250 a year for a full-time student at a four-year school and up to $4,650 for a full-time student at a two-year school, according to the state Office of Higher Education.

Sens. Beth Bye of West Hartford and Doug McCrory of Hartford and Rep. Gregg Haddad of Mansfield, all Democrats, attended the news conference and spoke in favor of the scholarship program.

Urging the students to contact their legislators, Bye told them, “Right now at a press conference in Meriden, Republicans are calling on Democrats to join them in overriding this veto, which would mean this program is done. I don’t want to scare you but it’s real.”

McCrory told the students: “So many of you are almost at the finish line. It would be ridiculous for us to stop you in your tracks.”

Students talked about how important the scholarship is to them as they cobble together grants, scholarships and part-time work to pay their bills.

Karli Robertson, a junior at University of Saint Joseph, said the Willis scholarship recently saved her from having to leave school.

“It allowed me to breathe again and not have to transfer,” she said. “Without that scholarship, I wouldn’t be here.”

Contreras said that he worked all through high school and managed to buy a car when he graduated with plans to commute from West Hartford to the University of Hartford. However, he said, it “turns out college was a lot more expensive than I thought. I ended up having to give up my car and a bunch of other stuff.”

Instead of driving, he walked the four miles every day to campus.

A health science major, he has a part-time job at Hartford Hospital now and the offer of a job there when he graduates. He’s worried that if he loses the scholarship, he might not get there.

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