In the hopes of improving student outcomes and reducing costs for state taxpayers, Connecticut’s twelve community colleges are expected to be consolidated into a single accredited institution in 2023.
“Students First will help improve the success rate of our community college students which is not good at all right now, the lowest in New England actually,” said Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. “It will address the equity gap that exists and thirdly put our community colleges on a sustainable financial path for the future.”
According to Leigh Appleby, director of communications for the school system, in the past fiscal year the state college and university system has saved close to $11 million through the initiative. By 2023, the savings are projected to be at $23 million annually. Most of this cost cutting has come from vacated positions that have not been filled.
“Given the difficult financial circumstances, our reserves at our community colleges would run out in a year and half and one or more of our campuses would have to close,” Okjakian said. “I’m committed to not closing a college. All the locations and satellites provide valuable access and opportunity to our students if we are going to continue to be the focus of workforce development in Connecticut.”
Faculty and staff from Gateway to Norwalk to Three Rivers Community College, however, say that the Students First initiative does not address the stated needs of the program, and will not improve educational outcomes if fully implemented.
“It’s impacting our current students negatively because we don’t have the staffing we need to effectively work with them and if this were to happen it would impact our students because we would no longer have the independence to tailor our programs for our school. It is taking away the local aspect of the community college,” said Lois Aime, a professor at Norwalk Community College.
Ojakian, however, disagreed, saying that there has been no impact for current students and that the reductions for employees has been on the administrative level at the individual colleges.
“The positions that we are not refilling or combining with others are administrator positions, they are not advisors, faculty or financial aid officers,” he said.
In fact, one of the major initiatives of Students First is to reduce the student-advisor ratio from 700 to 1, to 250 to 1.
According to Aime, however, in her department at Norwalk they have only been able to replace one of two recently retired professors.
At present, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities have 14 open positions, and according to the state budget in the past three years, the system office’s budget has increased by more than one-third, from $30.3 million to $46.9 million today.
Labor to address consolidation Friday
The main complaint voiced by Aime and her colleagues, is a lack of transparency and a failure to include current faculty and staff in the consolidation process.
“It’s incredibly chaotic because they’re not looking at any of these things closely. We have had no input, no back and forth, while they promote this illusion of inclusion,” Aime said.
At a press conference on Friday at the State Capitol, a coalition of labor unions representing faculty and professional staff at the colleges and universities will address the issue.
“The faculty and staff will deliver a list of faculty and staff that have asked to have their names removed from the document claiming that the administration is operating in a clear, transparent manner with them,” said Lauren Doninger, the coordinator of Liberal Arts and Science at Gateway Community College. “A lot of people on that list had no idea that their names were being submitted to the legislature and identified as working on the transfer and articulation pathways. They aren’t doing that.”
Doninger said the problem is not that they are working to consolidate the schools, but that they are consolidating them without establishing an adequate governance structure that will allow for appropriate curriculum development and coordination throughout the twelve campuses.
“From the very beginning my approach was, ‘I don’t think I would choose consolidation,’ but I can see the benefits. As long as we build the foundation of governance, I’ll work for it,” Doninger said. “But the working group wasn’t even called until December of 2018 — more than a year after the process began.”
As a former member of the shared governance working group, Aime said “we asked for an expansion of our charge to include the shared governance process surrounding curriculum and they denied it. No system governance process is in place and there is nothing on a system level.” When asked who then is developing the unified curriculum, Aime replied, “like nobody.”
Even if the central office succeeds in its effort to push through a plan to consolidate the system into one college, Aime said it was not clear whether the plan can be accredited.
“Within our regional accrediting guidelines, faculty-only curriculum are accepted,” she said. “If it’s given to us from the top down, there will be serious ramifications.”
From Doninger’s point of view, the process has been unnecessarily rushed. To Ojakian, there is no time to lose.
“We do not have the luxury of waiting more than we need to wait because of the financial support decline from the state,” he said. “We can either stand by and say this is too fast and not the way to go or we can all sit down and work toward a common goal of long term viability.”
The motivation for a single curriculum
In order to be recognized as a unified accredited college, the 12 community colleges need to have a shared curriculum for each major. For example, an English associate’s degree at Manchester Community College would need to offer the same courses and require the same classes as Tunxis.
Once the curricula at all 12 schools are aligned, and they become one college, students will be able to take classes at any campus, at any time, according to school officials. Today, students must apply to each school separately in order to take classes at multiple campuses.
“They can’t offer every class everywhere,” Appleby said. “This will allow students to take the classes they want, when they want and graduate on time.”
According to Ojakian, improving the current graduation rate and achievement gap are the key reasons why one curriculum and increased advisor support through a guided pathway system are needed.
In 2019, just 20 percent of white students and 8 percent of black students graduated within three years from the 12 schools. Factoring in transfers, those numbers grow to 35 and 20 percent respectively. The national average for community colleges is 57 percent in six years.
That disparity is what Aime points to when she says the administration doesn’t understand what’s happening on the ground.
“They are saying our retention rates and our graduation rates are low – but the primary problem with saying that is we have open enrollment – most of our students come to us from the wrong side of the achievement gap. How do we fix what has been occurring for 13 years?” Aime said. “We also have many, many students that start full time and then realize that they can’t work and go to school, so they drop down to part time and don’t graduate in three years. They graduate in four or five or six. To me if you graduate at all, you’re successful, the definition they use is stupid.”