Facing a fiscal cliff estimated at about $220 million dollars over two years, state colleges and universities have been asked to prepare for possible budget cuts.
In a finance and infrastructure committee meeting on Wednesday, Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes said that the colleges and universities are expecting a shortfall of $106 million in 2024 and $115 million in 2025. Of this deficit, Barnes said, 60 percent was at the universities and 40 percent was at the community colleges.
Barnes said the funding gap was caused by the discontinuation of the $157 million in federal COVID relief funds, along with raises for state employees.
“We are facing very difficult financial circumstances next year as a result of the large amount of one-time revenue we received in the current year and last year,” Barnes said.
Chair of the Finance and Infrastructure Committee Richard Balducci said he wanted to see college and university presidents come up with multiple scenarios if they were asked to cut their budgets by 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent and 5 percent.
Baldacci said that the biggest problem the colleges and universities were facing was a drop in enrollment and in fees from students that decide to live on campus.
“We need to increase enrollment at the colleges and universities. To add to that, we also have to see if we can increase room and board at the universities. We’re losing tons and tons of dollars … overtime,” he said.
Leigh Appleby, communications director for the colleges and universities, said that the enrollment numbers for the fall were not yet finalized. But enrollment projections for the 2022-23 year estimated an enrollment of 21,000 at the universities — the lowest in five years and a drop of nearly 5,000 students since 2019.
Enrollment at the community colleges was estimated in June at around 20,800 — on-par with 2020-21 enrollment but below the five-year peak of 26,100 in 2018-19.
Regent Ari Santiago said he believed they needed to develop strategies to better engage the community and bring in more students. He said he believed that this would give them a greater chance of being able to get more state funds.
“What can we do to raise enrollment, engage the community, drive our mission further? Because the more enrollment we have, the more impact we make,” he said.
Barnes said that no increase in tuition would be enough to make up for the shortfall. Any increases in tuition, Barnes said, would be based on what they believe students can realistically afford.
Balancing the institutions’ overall budgets, he said, would rely mainly on a combination of state aid and changes that the institutions would have to make.
Barnes also said that each college and university would be asked to provide specific ideas for increasing their revenues or decreasing their expenses. The campuses were asked to provide Barnes with these ideas by the end of September.
“I think it’s a frustrating challenge for them, because these are all very difficult changes that they might consider,” Barnes acknowledged.
Barnes said the colleges and university system should make across-the-board cuts only as a last resort. Instead, he said, institutions should be looking for ways that they can grow revenue and eliminate “underperforming programs” that are not benefiting students.
“The desire to cut our way out of these financial problems is, while understandable, may not be in the long term in the best interest of the institutions,” he said.
But he acknowledged that the universities and colleges did have limited funds.
“At the end of the day, if we can’t find a way to balance our budget, we have to live within our means,” he said.
The university is also asking for $501 million for funds for renovations at the various campuses. Barnes said many of the projects being proposed were requests from prior years that had not been funded.
“The current level of infrastructure investment at [the colleges and universities] is not sustainable over the long period of time,” he said.
Barnes said that they are hoping to determine next year’s tuition for the universities in October and for the community colleges in December.