For Carol Lopez, a first generation student at Manchester Community College, a tuition increase wouldn’t just put her own education in jeopardy — it would negatively affect her children as well.
“This hike will hurt. This hike will hurt three generations of my family under me — and I am the first generation of my nine brothers and sisters to attend community college.”
On Wednesday, Lopez and 6 or 7 other students gathered at the State Capitol to hold a press conference organized by a number of unions, including the 4Cs, the union representing staff at the colleges, to voice their fears that there will be a tuition increase at the state’s 12 community colleges.
Last year, the board voted unanimously to raise tuition at the community colleges by $224, despite “significant misgivings” expressed by Board Chair Andy Fleury and opposition from students and professors who warned of students facing rising inflation, food and housing insecurity.
In September, the Community Colleges’ Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes told the Board of Regents that the colleges were looking at a shortfall of $220 million in the 2024-25 school years.
Seth Freeman, president of the 4Cs, told CT Examiner that the union had begun meeting with students earlier this year after the Board of Regent’s finance and infrastructure committee began discussing changes to tuition rates for the Universities and the Community Colleges. He said most students were not aware of the discussion about the tuition increases.
“Typically they’re not informed about the tuition hikes until after the board has already made the decision about it,” said Freeman.
Freeman said that the union then worked with the students to organize a rally at Capital Community College protesting tuition increases. He said going to the legislature was the logical next step. He said that the union wanted to see was greater funding for the community colleges from the legislature, and that while he wasn’t immediately concerned about reductions to staffing — something that the Board of Regents has not proposed — he feared that, ultimately, increases to tuition would negatively impact enrollment.
“The biggest threat to the workforce, frankly, is underfunding from the state and lack of enrollment,” he said. “Any policy that hurts enrollment will ultimately be hurtful to our workforce.”
In October, the Board voted to raise tuition at the Universities by three percent next year, to $12,847, not including room and board. But according to Leigh Appleby, spokesperson for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, there is no proposal on the table for tuition at the community colleges.
“Ensuring that our public colleges and universities remain the most affordable, accessible higher education option in Connecticut is a top priority for CSCU,” said Appleby, who said a decision about community college tuition for next year could be made “as early as March.”
Tuition for a full-time student at the colleges for the 2022-23 school year is $4,700.
The Connecticut State Colleges and University Systems’ budget deficits are an ongoing problem driven by declines in enrollment combined with increased fringe benefit costs for employees. The controversial proposed merger of the 12 community colleges under a single administrative system — currently in the process of being rolled out — was pitched as a way to save administrative costs.
During the first year of COVID, enrollment at the colleges dipped 15 percent, driving its deficits down even further. The colleges were able to mitigate the loss through the use of about $122 million in federal coronavirus relief funding — much of which went directly to students to help pay their expenses — but that money is about to run dry.
Haddad told CT Examiner on Wednesday that with the loss of federal coronavirus relief funding, he was working with the legislature’s budget committee to replace the federal coronavirus funds with “real, ongoing dollars.”
“A death spiral”
For older and returning students who deal with additional financial pressures like supporting children, and also have less access to financial aid than first-time college students, additional tuition increases would be particularly difficult.
Lopez, for example, is a mother with two disabled children, including a son with Type 1 diabetes. Her monthly income, she said, amounts to a disability check and a part-time job she holds while at Manchester Community College.
“This does not help us eat well every day,” she said, adding that her small income has placed her at risk for homelessness and being unable to afford food or her son’s medical necessities. At Manchester, she is studying to become a drug and alcohol recovery counselor.
“These [tuition] hikes will prevent us from graduating from college and fulfilling our careers,” said Lopez. “We will be able to change so many lives because of our real experiences and having the knowledge to go with it.”
State Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chair of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said at the press conference that ensuring students were able to afford college was essential to the state’s economy, because it would create a pool of new workers that could fill the state’s job vacancies.
“It’s important for us to recognize that our economy depends on your talent. It depends on our ability to fill jobs here in the state of Connecticut that are open and are ready for people who have the training and the education necessary,” said Haddad.
Gordon Plouffe, a business student at Manchester Community College, said a college degree was critical for his economic future. He identified himself as a burn survivor and a suicide survivor, as well as being in recovery from an addiction. He enrolled in community college at the age of 50, which he said changed his life.
“I learned what it’s like to have a positive male role model, mentors, healthy relationships, and a bright future,” he said. “College education is way more than what we learned in the classroom settings.”
Plouffe said he had no access to financial aid. He said he took three years off from his education at one point to develop the college’s food pantry, which he currently coordinates. Plouffe said that up to 60 percent of the community college’s students skip food once a month for financial reasons. When he first started college, he was one of them.
“There were times in my early semesters when we had no pantry at MCC and I had to find food in garbage cans. I wanted no students to ever experience that,” he said.
Increases in tuition also present challenges for students who are immigrants or come from immigrant families. Julio Nunez, a 25-year-old student at Tunxis Community College, said he had dropped out of school at the age of 18, unsure of what he wanted to do. Now that he had returned to college, he said, he had to contend with the fact that he no longer had access to the financial aid he might have been able to get at a younger age.
Nunez said that an increase in tuition would mean choosing between his education, paying for his healthcare needs and supporting his siblings in the Dominican Republic.
Dumebi Emenyonu, a 23-year-old student at Capital Community College, who returned to school after taking a gap year during the pandemic, said that she had seen friends and loved ones forced to leave the U.S. when their inability to pay debt invalidated their student visas.
Emenyonu said she’d seen many students have to drop out because the cost of attending college was too much. She said these students spent all of their time working to try and pay for their education.
“With bills and due dates hovering over our heads constantly, I question every day if I have the ability to finish school before I have to take up a few jobs too,” she said.
Appleby told CT Examiner that the colleges would require help from the state if they were to avoid placing more financial burdens on students through tuition increases.
“The current financial situation across the CSCU system underscores the need for state investment in order to keep tuition low while providing much needed supports to help our students succeed and complete,” said Appleby.
Haddad said he also wanted to consider other ways that the state could help students, such as extending the PACT program for free college tuition to students who are returning after a break in their education. Currently, the program is only open to first-time students. He told CT Examiner it would be possible to do this using funds for the program that have gone unused.
He also brought up the possibility of expanding the Roberta Willis Scholarship, funds that are available for graduates of high schools in Connecticut with a certain GPA who go to college in the state.
State Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the legislature’s Higher Education committee, said that he feared a tuition increase would make the community colleges’ financial problems even worse.
“When you face an issue like declining enrollment, and then you add on top of it increased tuition, what I fear is a death spiral,” said Slap. “And that’s what we need to avoid.”