State Colleges Face Looming Budget Shortfalls, Declines in Enrollment


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After significant boosts in funding and losses in enrollment in recent years, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system is coming to terms with large budget shortfalls – including $181 million less than requested – for the 2024-25 school year. 

The budget approved by the state legislature earlier this month grants the colleges $8 million more than requested for fiscal year 2024, followed by a $116 million cut in 2025 — a cut that system CFO and Vice President for Operations Ben Barnes called “a source of extraordinary concern.”

Barnes told the Board of Regents and the Faculty Advisory Committee on Friday that the $116 million represented about 10 percent of the combined spending of all the colleges and universities. 

Barnes also said that a sizable amount of funding the schools are receiving — about $203 million in 2024 and $76.3 million in 2025 — is temporary, hampering longer-term planning for the state system.

“Having such large amounts of our financial aid package from the state come in the form of non-permanent funds is an extreme disadvantage for the system. It’s very hard for us to make plans. It’s very hard for us to build momentum around activities where we’re constantly having to address budget shortfalls,” he said.

CSCU President Terrence Cheng acknowledged they would receive $164 million more than what was originally proposed in the governor’s draft budget in February. 

“That’s saying something,” Cheng said. “We did land in a better place than where we originally started.” 

When asked about proposed layoffs during a news conference earlier this month, Gov. Ned Lamont said both the CSCU system and the University of Connecticut had received substantial funding increases over the last few years. 

“They have a dramatic increase compared to 2019, and it’s gone up consistently, often double digits,” the governor said. “And that’s at the same time [that] the CSCU system has a diminishing student population. So you cannot keep doing things the same old way because you’ve always done it that way.”

But the budget still doesn’t provide the funding that CSCU administrators claim is necessary to keep the system viable long term. The CSCU budget has remained “essentially flat” since 2007, according to Cheng, given inflation, increased wages for state employees and fringe benefits costs. 

In a statement after the budget was adopted in early June, Cheng said the universities would begin preparing to address the shortfall. 

‘Exaggerated and counterproductive’

In April, the CSCU system presented a cost savings plan eliminating about 650 full-time faculty and staff positions and 3,000 part-time positions over the next few years – the vast majority from community colleges. The plan also included a 5 percent tuition hike for students. 

In response, state college faculty warned that the tuition increase and staff cuts would further undermine the system’s ability to survive, and would give the state more reason to withhold funding in the future. 

In a June 5 statement to the Board of Regents’ Executive Committee, Faculty Advisory Committee Chair Colena Sesanker said the April cost savings plan was “exaggerated and counterproductive” and would jeopardize the functioning of the college and the transition to a unified community college system  – Connecticut State Community College. 

In response, Barnes noted a $181 million gap between what CSCU had requested for its long-term 2030 plan and what the legislature just approved.

But a June 14 follow-up letter signed state college faculty chairs called the 2030 plan an “aspirational document” rather than a benchmark for what it will take to operate the colleges and universities.

“The difference between what we got and [the 2030 plan proposal] cannot be properly called a ‘deficit’ — certainly not one that necessitates layoffs, cuts and tuition hikes on the scale that has been entertained,” the faculty chairs wrote. 

Sesanker said the legislature’s adoption of fiscal guardrails in 2017, coupled with consolidating 12 independent community colleges into one college, “transformed a really well-meaning spending cap into a tool for austerity and reduction of state services.” She also said she feared the one-time nature of COVID funding would make it difficult for the system to get the funding they ask for in the next budget cycle. 

‘The same old way’ 

Office of Policy and Management spokesperson Chris Colibee disagreed, telling CT Examiner the fiscal guardrails allowed Connecticut to be in a positive financial position.

He said the state had increased the block grant for the colleges by more than 25 percent from 2019 to 2024.

“The funding provided during the pandemic was intended to be one-time in nature to address needs brought about by the pandemic, not for ongoing expenditures. CSCU needs to realign its spending with demand, which it has failed to do so,” said Colibee, who added that the budget included funding for the colleges to hire an independent consultant to help the institutions achieve “financial sustainability.” 

Lamont responded that the state budget provided the colleges with additional money in 2024 to “help people make a transition.” He said the state had invested in workforce groups and 18-week certificate programs, to “give people an earlier and faster and better chance to earn while you learn.” 

Collibee noted that community college enrollment had dropped by about 28,000 students over the last 10 years, with nearly half of that decline happening during the pandemic. 

Barnes raised the drop in enrollments during the Friday meeting as well, noting it was a problem for community colleges across the nation. Community colleges in the Northeast are expecting a  10 to 12 percent drop in enrollment over the next few years, he said.

Mike Shea, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, said he wished the state would use the enrollment drop as an opportunity to put more money toward the remaining students and  improve the quality of their education.

“Right now, we’re terribly underfunded,” Shea said. “We’re getting weaker students because of COVID and high school and just — in general, they just need more attention. And we’re kind of cheating them if we’re not giving them more attention.”

Sesanker warned that the loss in funding would negatively affect students who need the most support.

“We can’t advertise that we’re building a college in the service of equity while we’re building a structure to facilitate disinvestment in those who are already underserved,” she said. “What has gotten lost along the way is the public service that we’re entrusted with preserving.”

David Blitz, co-chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee, made several suggestions regarding how the colleges could avoid layoffs and tuition increases, including dipping into budget reserves, incentivizing faculty to retire and increasing bachelor’s and master’s joint degree programs to attract more students. 

‘Clearly have to right size’ 

According to CSCU spokesperson Leigh Appleby, a February progress report to the New England Commission of Higher Education, showed that the college merger saved the system $35 million this year.

But CSCU records also show that the total cost of running the community colleges increased from $467 million in 2016-17 to $610 million this past year – a rise significantly in excess of inflation. 

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckham told CT Examiner that the merger hadn’t saved the state as much money as anticipated.  

“But it was a good start,” he added. “I appreciate their efforts.”

Beckham said the colleges and universities “clearly have to right size,” noting the 30 percent enrollment drop, and said he would continue to work with the CSCU system. 

Appleby said that cost cutting plants for 2025 were still in early stages, but that the colleges anticipated “a collaborative process in which presidents and campus leadership teams take the lead on developing plans for each institution.” 

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.