With a stroke of a pen, leadership at Quinnipiac University and Gateway and Housatonic Community Colleges have done more to equalize access to higher education and retain Connecticut talent, than some of our state and national leaders.

A recent agreement to ensure that graduates from the community colleges in New Haven and Bridgeport can seamlessly transfer to an accredited and highly regarded four-year university is poised to begin to break a pattern of crippling student loan debt and the cycle of poverty, improve equitable access to higher ed, and increase the number of young talent who are likely to stay in Connecticut.

It’s no secret Connecticut is hemorrhaging young talent for a couple of good reasons. The first rung of loses happen when droves of Connecticut teens choose out-of-state colleges, and there’s almost nothing we can do to change that. When it comes to our college populations, the number of in-state students attending Connecticut’s public and independent colleges has only grown 4.6 percent from 2008 to 2018, according to a report from the Office of Higher Education. This while the number of out-of-state students has grown 26.6 percent. In many cases, an increasing out-of-state population can correlate to residential growth, as long as you have the post-graduation jobs to offer those students who otherwise have fewer reasons to stay than in-state students. Which brings us to the next issue.

While the national job growth is swelling each month, Connecticut is seeing a different trend. The state reported a loss of 1,500 jobs in June and 1,800 in May. And while the state reports a decrease in unemployed residents by 800, we maintained a 3.8 percent unemployment rate, only slightly higher than the national average of 3.6 percent.

In recent years, we’ve seen General Electric, Alexion, Aetna, and United Technologies move all or most of their jobs to another state. Adding insult to injury, many of these companies have moved to comparable cities, in bigger states with higher taxes. But as the jobs go, so does the talent.

That’s in part why the agreement between the two community colleges and Quinnipiac comes at a pivotal time. The move will go a long way toward ensuring our state is able to keep young talent close to home and will aid in reducing the levels of debt students incur for their education.

Quinnipiac is one of the most expensive schools in the state, ringing up at $67,220 for a freshman living on campus and $54,780 for commuters. As an alumna of Quinnipiac, my student loans have my mortgage beat for the largest chunk of my income. For reference, my mortgage is $1,344 a month.

Our nation’s student loan crisis has the potential to cripple the economy, with borrowers on the book for $1.5 trillion averaging about $34,00 per person. I look at that average in contempt wishing I could trade my bill in for the average. The reality is that far too many graduates are carrying debts the price of a small cape style home in New Haven but are living at home with parents because they can’t afford to go it alone. And since the price of everything is going up (inflation, rent, taxes, and interest rates on debt) faster than wages in Connecticut, the future is bleak for millennials looking to leave the nest.

Try as we might, our debts inhibit us from being active consumers and limits our buying power across the board. As the generation before us ages into retirement and we approach and exit home ownership age, our country may see another crisis in the housing market as many millennials will face difficultly being approved for mortgages due to their debt-to-income ratio.

If I had to do it all again, I’d choose a community college first and transfer to a state school to save a couple of coins and compounded interest. But having the option to transfer to a school with a larger name, more internship opportunities and nationally recognized programs will immensely benefit the droves of Connecticut residents who take this route.

Students should still expect some sticker shock for even just the two years at Quinnipiac. So if cost is a barrier, a state university may still be more than $100,000 less than becoming a Bobcat. But consider the tradeoff: a degree from a nationally recognized private institution with a higher endorsement than Connecticut’s state schools, for half its actual price, might be worth it.

Under the seamless transfer agreement, Gateway and Housatonic graduates are guaranteed admission into a bachelor’s degree program with third-year (junior) status at Quinnipiac once they graduate with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 from the community college with an associate degree in arts or an associate of science in business, college of technology engineering science, nursing or an allied health degree. Students also must satisfy all other Quinnipiac transfer admission requirements and requirements for the intended major.

Connecticut needs this. But the droves of low income and historically under-served and disadvantaged students who opted into community colleges as their route out of poverty need this even more.

This pipeline is one of the state’s best solutions to creating equitable access to high quality higher education that so many people have been kept out of. It says, you don’t have to have gone to a well-funded suburban high school, you don’t have to have everything figured out at the age of 18, you don’t have to sign on to predatory student loans, and your parents don’t have to ruin their credit on your path to a degree.

Advocates often say education is the great equalizer. But our nation’s higher ed industry has put far too many barriers in front of the lesser privileged for that to be true in 2019. This agreement, with its implicit commitment to equity, starts our state on the path to correcting that — for everyone’s sake.

Mercy Quaye is a social change communications consultant and a New Haven native. Her column appears Mondays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Contact her at @Mercy_WriteNow and SubtextWithMercy@gmail.com.