Officials from UConn, UConn Health and the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities urged the state’s budget committee on Wednesday to increase state funding for public colleges and universities that they said will otherwise face critical shortfalls over the next two years.
Students from UConn crowded the capitol building on Wednesday, wearing red shirts that read “#SaveUConn” and holding “Fund the Future” signs. About 170 faculty, staff and students from different colleges and universities also submitted testimony about the budget, and about 130 signed up to testify at a public hearing on Wednesday evening.
Governor Lamont’s budget, which was presented last week, allocates $886.8 million over two years for the University of Connecticut and UConn Health and $922.9 million for the state colleges and universities.
But the state colleges and universities, as well as UConn and UConn Health, have said that the proposed funding is not enough to cover the employees’ rising salaries and fringe benefit costs.
Connecticut State Colleges and Universities
Connecticut State Colleges and University President Terrence Cheng told legislators that despite yearly increases in funding from the legislature, the budget has remained “essentially flat” since 2007 because of inflation, increased wages for state employees and fringe benefits costs.
“Our system, with a flat operating budget for 15 years, has not been able to invest in the academic programs and the student supports and the infrastructure that our students and our state truly need and deserve,” said Cheng.
CSCU Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes told the legislature that the governor’s budget did not cover the contractual increases in salaries that the state negotiated with the employees’ bargaining union, SEBAC.
Barnes said the governor’s budget provides only $19 million of the $49 million required to pay the state employee salaries at the universities in 2024. He said funding the shortfall would require the universities to increase tuition by about 21 percent and that the colleges will face similar issues.
The CSCU system estimated that the governor’s budget would leave them with a shortfall of about $453 million over the next two years.
State Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, said she was unhappy about the governor’s proposal.
“I’m disappointed that we are contemplating a budget that, in my opinion, disinvests in you so much,” said Flexer.
State Representative Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, asked how the colleges were adapting to the needs of the workforce, particularly in the area of healthcare, and providing students with more opportunities to find jobs that do not require a four-year degree.
“We have to start looking at, philosophically, what is the intent of our colleges? And how does that facilitate our students getting out of college with the least amount of debt and the highest opportunity for a job that’s going to make them sustainable,” said Nuccio.
Cheng said he had been working with the state Department of Education to bring more Connecticut students to the colleges and universities, and to provide more “wraparound services” so that students were not dropping out of school because they could not pay. He also said the department was working with the state Office of Workforce Strategy and with the hospitals to be able to offer relevant opportunities for students.
But he said that the university needed funds to be able to accomplish these goals.
“For us to meet 21st century needs, we have to have a 21st century investment,” said Cheng.
During a budget presentation last week, Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Jeffrey Beckham pointed out that the colleges and universities’ enrollment levels had declined by 30 percent over the last 10 years.
Cheng said that he did not expect enrollment to return to 2010 levels.
“The birth rate, the fertility rate, the immigration rate, the migration rates, they are all working against us at this time,” said Cheng. “These are things that are unfortunately outside of our control.”
UConn and UConn Health
Radenka Maric, president of the University of Connecticut, said that the university would need to increase tuition by $3,000 annually to make up for the shortfall in the governor’s budget, which the University estimated at $356.7 million over the next two years for UConn and UConn Health combined.
Governor Ned Lamont’s office said in a statement that the block grant provided to UConn in the budget this year was the largest ever proposed, and that it would also move the responsibility of UConn’s legacy fringe benefit costs from UConn to the state.
But the statement also noted that UConn should not expect the state to continue matching the temporary funding that UConn received through the federal coronavirus relief funds.
“The COVID-19 federal relief funds were intended to be one-time in nature, providing support during the public health emergency. Those federal dollars were never intended to pay for ongoing expenses. The UConn administration’s insistence that the state continue covering this federal aid now that it is no longer available is not a fiscally sustainable solution,” Lamont said in the statement.
Nuccio also questioned the University’s request, pointing out that it was common knowledge that the federal coronavirus relief funds were one-time money.
“State support and the block grant have gone up every year. UConn has not been cut,” said Nuccio.
Maric said in her testimony that although the state is taking on more of the legacy costs, they are also decreasing the block grant, which would negate those benefits.
Maric said that although the colleges and universities were working on cost-efficiency measures to address the loss of the federal funds, it would take time for those measures to have an effect.
“I sit down with [Office of Policy and Management] Secretary [Jeffrey] Beckham, we talk about those numbers. I present on [a] quarterly basis to him where are the savings that we have done and what we are doing. But to go to this magnitude, it’s not possible to happen overnight,” said Maric.
State Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, said that the governor had proposed several ideas for UConn to make up the shortfall, including accepting more out-of-state tuition students, who pay more, increasing class sizes, raising tuition and fundraising. But Maric said that increasing class sizes and accepting more out-of-state students would have a detrimental effect on the students and their ability to graduate in a four-year period.
“The difficulty in increasing enrollment is [the] size of the classes, mental health support, cultural health support dorms, and all the support that we have to provide to students in order to be successful. So if we increase the classes, our students will not graduate in 4.1 [years], they’re going to graduate in five or six years,” Maric said.