The Connecticut Board of Regents voted unanimously on Thursday to raise tuition at the community colleges despite opposition from faculty and staff who say that students cannot afford any additional costs right now.
“I have personally provided students with books, uniforms, parking money, money for food, snacks in the classroom because they were economically struggling,” wrote Kerry McNivin, the director of clinical education for respiratory therapy at Manchester Community College, in an email to the Board.
The rate increase will be $12 per credit — from $254 to $266 — or an increase of $224 for full-time students, from the current $4,476 to $4,700.
Richard Balducci, chair of the Finance and Infrastructure Committee pointed out that 71 percent of its students who seek aid are able to attend the colleges for free because of grants or scholarships, and that an additional 11 percent have at least part of their tuition covered by grants, scholarships or financial aid.
But Lisa Calabrese, an assistant director of admissions at Naugatuck Community College, said in her remarks that students who need financial aid don’t always receive it. She said that for some students, even a small increase in aid could be “monumental.”
“Many don’t realize that Federal Aid is not a guarantee, did not know they needed to do it in advance of registering without making a deposit and assume the PACT funding is available to all students – full and part time. It is a crushing blow to them to hear they will have to pay out of pocket, even if temporarily awaiting reimbursement while their FAFSA is processed. Often, by the time they have their financial aid package in place, it is too late for them to register or we cannot build a schedule that syncs with their work and home life responsibilities. In addition, there are so many that are just shy of the threshold to receive aid,” wrote Calabrese.
The board said that in addition to the tuition fees, they also plan to increase the amount of money put aside to help students who cannot afford tuition.
Balducci said that they expected the additional tuition fees to raise $7 million, $2 million of which would go toward set-aside funds to help students in need of financial aid.
“There was a great deal of time, effort and work that went into this process,” said Balducci. “It wasn’t just done randomly.”
Balducci pointed out that in addition to the extra money for financial aid, the size of the federal Pell Grants have increased by about $400. He pointed out that those who qualify for a full grant receive $6,400. After paying the $4,700 for community college tuition, he said, the students can keep the remainder to help pay for personal costs.
However, Colena Sesanker, a professor of philosophy at Gateway Community College and chair of the board’s faculty advisory committee, said that even a small amount makes a big difference for students in need.
“Every dollar that they don’t get toward going to school is a dollar less for paying rent, for eating for transportation, for wifi access, etcetera,” said Sesanker. “It’s not a lot of money … but it will be felt significantly by the portion of the students that we are talking about.”
Several of those who submitted public comments mentioned that earlier this month, Cheng testified on a bill in the state legislature that will require public colleges and universities to provide options for students experiencing food insecurity, including greater access to federal and state programs, on-campus food pantries and extra meals on the college meal plan.
The legislature is also considering a bill that will require public colleges and universities to survey students and create grants for students experiencing homelessness.
In his testimony on the food insecurity bill, Cheng said that, according to a 2019 survey of more than 3,500 students, about half said they worried about food running out and nearly all said they “cut the size of their meals or skipped meals to make food last longer.” Cheng said the pandemic had made things worse.
“Food insecurity is very real for our students,” Cheng said in the Thursday meeting.
Jamie Zakowski, a student at Tunxis Community College, told the board that she had spoken to fellow students who told her that the increase in tuition would mean they could not continue their studies.
“This increase will prohibit them to continue their college education due to the financial disadvantages it will pose,” said Zakowski. “Students that will have to choose between paying for their education or putting food on the table, paying for childcare or other basic needs that the extra $224 had provided them.”
Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Terrence Cheng said that the community colleges had experienced one of the largest declines in enrollment nationally. Enrollment last year dropped to 19,000 students from its peak of 35,000 over the last decade. The most recent enrollment reports show full-time enrollment at 17,913.
Balducci said that the declining enrollment was jeopardizing the ability to fund the colleges.
“In order to operate those faculties we need to have dollars,” he said, adding that the alternative was “substantial and maybe draconian changes.”
Cheng also said that tuition is below the national median.
“The board … has held tuition flat the last few years and we’re trying to hold students as harmless as possible, but it’s just really difficult given all that we’re going through right now,” said Cheng.
The board highlighted an expected a budgeting shortfall of $61 million for the 2023 fiscal year — increasing tuition rates would decrease this shortfall to $57 million.
Sesanker suggested that the state college and university system ask for more funds from the Connecticut state legislature. Faculty who submitted testimony also objected to the use of funds to hire managerial positions for the colleges.
Board of Regents Chair Andy Fleury said he supported the tuition increase with “significant misgivings.” He said the board needed to push for funding from other sources and take on a “rigorous review of operational administrative ways in which we organize ourselves to allocate those dollars throughout the system.”
“We cannot continue to turn to students to solve these problems in such significant measures,” he said.