WINSTED — Northwestern Connecticut Community College (NCCC) held its annual Legislative Breakfast on Friday, Jan. 29.
The event, which is a summit of state and local legislators, along with business leaders and members of the NCCC college community, is usually held on the college campus.
However, this year due to the continuing Covid pandemic, the event was held via Zoom, with more than 50 people attending.
The main topic of discussion at the event was funding for the state’s PACT (Pledge to Advance Connecticut) program.
After some time in the planning stages, the PACT program started in the fall and pays for students who meet eligibility requirements to attend any of the state’s community colleges for free for up to three years.
NCCC President Michael Rooke told attendees that, thanks to the PACT program, full-time student enrollment at the college increased in fall 2020 by 19.2 percent.
Rooke said that part-time student enrollment in fall 2020 decreased by 10.7 percent, mainly due to students switching to full-time status to take advantage of the PACT program.
“At a time when most community college’s enrollment was down 15 to 20 percent, we were going in the opposite direction,” Rooke said. “That has tremendously happened due to PACT. We marketed the heck out of PACT, and that is why we were up so high. Demand for this program is certainly there.”
However, enrollment for the spring 2021 semester increased by only 2.1 percent, while part-time student enrollment decreased even further by 27.3 percent.
“I attribute that to a lot of students who struggled in the fall are now taking a semester off,” Rooke said. “I hope they will come back, but many of them are finding it difficult. Online learning is not ideal for a lot of students. With social distancing and the size of our classrooms, it’s so difficult to have students on campus. We hope that as the vaccine gets rolled out, the pandemic will shift and we will be able to offer more in-person classes in the fall.”
Rooke said that 60 percent of NCCC students receive funding for their college learning through federal Pell grants, and the remaining percentage receive funding via the PACT program.
He said that, due to the lack of legislative funding for the PACT program, the state’s college and university system was forced to use a portion of its reserves to operate the program.
“It took $3 million to run this program in fall 2020,” Rooke said. “The increase in our enrollment is largely due to this program. This has helped our colleges and our students. But due to funding uncertainty, it makes it very difficult to keep promising that this program will remain. Continuing students have been promised funding again. But I feel ethically challenged to promote to students funding that we can’t honestly promise. We are struggling with whether or not we should be marketing a program that we can’t honestly say if it will be there in the future.”
Both Rooke and Dr. Jane Gates, Interim President and Provost for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, urged legislators to give state funding for the PACT program.
“For our legislators, I cannot stress enough the importance of a long-term solution for PACT,” Gates said. “As you know, this program was created in the most recent bi-annual budget but was never funded by the legislature. Finding a sustainable path forward for PACT will be critical to driving access and opportunity, now more than ever in the pandemic. This has hit many of our communities hard for all of our residents looking to their economic and social mobility amid this pandemic crisis, which we are all struggling through where we continue to do what we need to do best. These students are the future of the state and I cannot think of a more worthy investment.”
Student learning struggles during the pandemic
During the event, NCCC student Erin Sullivan shared with attendees both her experience and the experiences of other students during the pandemic.
“Right now, it’s all about self-motivation and self-drive,” Sullivan said. “There are a lot of students who are essential workers who are lacking both because their job is taking away all of their energy.”
Sullivan and Rooke pointed out that many of the students attending NCCC also hold jobs, sometimes two or even three jobs at a time.
Sullivan said that NCCC has been great when it comes to continuing to offer support services that were previously offered before the pandemic, including student success services and a food pantry.
“A lot of students don’t know about the resources that are available to them,” Sullivan said. “They don’t feel comfortable coming forward and asking for help. Being able to teach our students to ask for help is the biggest thing right now especially when it comes down to mental health. There are a lot of students right now who are suffering from anxiety, and depression because the pandemic is a time of uncertainty. People don’t know if they’re going to get as good of grades as they did last semester or if they want to take courses. There’s just a lot of uncertainty, and I think mental health is something that is not talked about as much as it should be. However, NCCC has always been good at giving students resources with what they need, so it’s the student’s responsibility to ask for help.”