Connecticut Commitment Program Paused Amid Budget Challenges

President Thomas Katsouleas told the UConn Board of Trustees on Wednesday that the pause was regrettable but unavoidable, and he and board members emphasized that they remain fully committed to helping low-income students afford a UConn education.

A view of Fairfield Way including some fall color.

(Peter Morenus/UConn photo)

Difficulty in raising enough funds for the Connecticut Commitment initiative and uncertainty regarding potentially rising costs has forced UConn to temporarily pause that scholarship program for low-income students, although its current participants will continue to receive the aid they were promised.

President Thomas Katsouleas told the UConn Board of Trustees on Wednesday that the pause was regrettable but unavoidable, and he and board members emphasized that they remain fully committed to helping low-income students afford a UConn education.

The Connecticut Commitment, which President Katsouleas announced at his inauguration in 2019, is funded through donations and covers the cost of tuition for qualified undergraduate and transfer students with household incomes below $50,000. The first cohort of about 260 students started this fall and will continue to receive the funding they were promised throughout their time at UConn.

“Pausing the program is the hardest decision I’ve had to make since arriving here,” Katsouleas said Wednesday. “While unfortunate and regrettable, I believe that this is a prudent and necessary choice to make at this time.

“While paused, the university will reassess this program going forward and given the uncertainty we are facing, I cannot make any prediction about what the future holds for the program,” he added. “What is certain is that we will continue the work of raising critical dollars to support our neediest students. The mission of ensuring that every deserving student admitted to UConn can attend the public flagship independent of their financial means remains core to who we are.”

The decision to temporarily pause the initiative comes as fundraising for the program has lagged expectations and because financial uncertainty in coming years makes it difficult to anticipate demand and how the overall financial aid budget might be affected.

“While the program may be on pause, our commitment to financial need, affordability and accessibility only grows, as much as we know that the needs of the students of Connecticut have grown,” UConn Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Toscano said. “We’ll do everything our power to try to address that with every resource we have, and with every resource we can find.”

Katsouleas said he and others will continue to cultivate financial support from current and potential donors for the Connecticut Commitment Scholarship Fund, and they will update trustees later in the fiscal year on the status so they can review whether resuming the program in FY22 would be feasible.

UConn made good initial progress in fundraising for the scholarship fund, including a $1 million gift from Synchrony, a financial services company, in December as well as other gifts from more than 500 donors before the pandemic struck.

The Connecticut Commitment award started for admitted undergraduate first-year students this fall at all campuses and in all majors, making up the difference between the cost of tuition and other aid such as federal Pell Grants and other need-based and merit-based awards.

Katsouleas said the Connecticut Commitment costs about $700,000 this year and, given pre-pandemic economic conditions, it was estimated to increase with each new class to a total of about $5 million by the fourth year. Currently, the approximately 260 students receiving Connecticut Commitment funds were awarded an average of $2,600 through the program to bridge the difference between their other aid and their costs.

Nathan Fuerst, UConn’s vice president for enrollment planning and management, said Wednesday that guidance counselors and potential applicants can be assured that the University remains fully committed to providing strong aid and that this action does not dilute that in any way.

“One of the keys for the Connecticut Commitment was to lend transparency to what already existed, and those programs exist today,” he said. “So, to the high school senior who’s in the process of filling out applications now or maybe if you’re hesitating to fill out the application, I urge you to do so.

“Students should not at all be dissuaded or discouraged as part of this announcement,” Fuerst said. “They should know there’s a lot of support available and we’re here to talk with you and show you how it’s possible, and how we can make your dreams of pursuing a degree at the University of Connecticut a reality.”

The University had committed to using philanthropy to fund the program and, even if it decided to change that strategy to explore using other funds, that also would not have been feasible because the overall budget is so constrained due to pandemic-related revenue losses and other factors.

“No student who arrived this fall and who benefits from the program will lose anything. We made a promise to these students and we will keep it — not just their full tuition scholarship but their needs for mentoring and other support to ensure success and long-term well-being and career engagement,” Katsouleas said.

“Nor will there be any reduction in our regular need-based financial aid program to new and continuing students. But we will not be offering the program next fall to a new cohort. Those students will still receive strong financial aid packages from UConn, in most cases scholarships that cover the bulk of tuition. It is just that we do not have the funds to promise to top it off to the full cost of tuition in every case.”

The Connecticut Commitment program is one of many initiatives at UConn aimed at attracting academically strong students who might otherwise have hesitated to apply to UConn due to their family’s finances. They include many first-generation college students, members of underrepresented minority groups, and others who deserve opportunities worthy of their talent and ambition.

UConn graduates’ average student loan indebtedness is lower than state and national averages, and the University promotes affordability through strong financial aid and by helping students graduate on time with supportive academic advising and the wide availability of required courses.

It also partners with the New Haven Promise and Hartford Promise scholarship programs to provide aid to graduates from those cities who enroll in UConn as well as many other initiatives for talented low-income students, with a particular emphasis on in-state graduates.

“I want to again stress that one of the biggest investments we make every year as an institution is in financial aid, amounting to about $200 million of our budget,” Katsouleas said Wednesday. “Our neediest students will continue to receive robust aid, as they have been. This includes the students who do or would have benefited from the Connecticut Commitment, which was only one aspect of our much larger financial aid efforts designed to make a UConn education more affordable for those with economic need. That isn’t changing.”