The Board of Regents is moving forward with tuition increases for community college students, possible staffing cuts and a requirement that the colleges produce their own plans for handling likely budget shortfalls given what school officials say is insufficient funding in the new state budget meet the needs of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.
The Board of Regents voted at its board meeting Wednesday to raise tuition at the community colleges five percent next year, bringing the cost for a full-time student from $4,700 to $4,966.
Last year, the board increased tuition $266 for full-time students, following a tuition freeze prompted by the pandemic.
Ben Barne, who serves as chief financial officer for CSCU, said during the Finance and Infrastructure Committee meeting last week that the most recent increase in aid for students who receive Pell Grants — a grant that goes to low-income students — will make up for the increase in tuition and fees. Barnes said 40 percent of students at the colleges pay nothing to attend, and 60 percent receive at least some kind of aid.
Professors and union leaders pushed back against the proposed increases, warning that they would be particularly harmful for students of color and undermine efforts toward equity.
“There are no other institutions in this state that anchor towns and cities, that are responsive to employers, and that are true engines of equity,” said John O’Connor, sociology professor at Central Connecticut State University and a member of the faculty union. “For Black and Brown students — for our students — these institutions are a lifeline to greater opportunity.”
But Terrence Cheng, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, said that the tuition hikes were only one part of a larger strategy to address the budget shortfall.
“We fully recognize the strain that this puts on our students. We fully recognize that every single dollar counts for our students, and we do not take these decisions lightly,” said Cheng.
But he also said they needed to be aware of the restrictions that the budget imposed.
“If there was a way for us to work outside the realm of reality and ignore the budgetary situation, I’d be happy to do it. I don’t want to raise tuition. None of us want to raise tuition. We don’t want to talk about layoffs,” said Cheng. “We value our people. But this is reality, folks. And so if we don’t start to firmly embrace reality and understand what the facts of the situation are together, we’re just going to keep spinning our wheels.”
Faculty raised further questions about whether contracts for part-time faculty and staff would be renewed next year. The contracts are set to expire on June 30.
Colena Sesanker, co-chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee and a professor of philosophy at Gateway Community College, underscored the uncertainty about the merger of the 12 community colleges into a single institution on July 1.
“I don’t know how many of my colleagues don’t know if they have a job in two days. Some of them run the food pantry, so some of our students don’t know where they’re getting that in two days. Some of them support extended hours at the library. We support working students, so they need those extended hours if they’re going to survive and move on to transfer,” said Sesanker.
Seth Freeman, president of the 4Cs union and a professor of Computer Science at Capital Community College, told CT Examiner that there were “hundreds” of part-time contracts ending on June 30, and that they were “learning of more and more nonrenewals every single day.”
But Ann Harrison, chief of staff and associate vice president of communications and strategic marketing for CT State Community College, told CT Examiner that as of Wednesday, fewer than 50 staff members with contracts ending June 30 were not being renewed, although she said there were others with contract renewals still “pending.”
Harrison said during a phone call that the administration was adopting a “modified hiring process” looking at contracts that are up for renewal and any new hires in light of budget constraints. She said the system would not eliminate positions that were key to running things like the food pantries and tutoring services.
“We would never undercut those services to our students,” Harrison said.
Harrison also told CT Examiner that some professors may face a delay in learning whether they would be teaching in the fall, given that enrollment and scheduling were ongoing.
“Some folks may not have heard yet, but that doesn’t mean they will not be coming back,” she said.
The Board is also requiring the unified CT State Community College and each of the four universities to create a deficit mitigation plan that will address the budget shortfalls anticipated over the next three years. Administrators of the institutions must present those plans to the Board no later than November 1.
Cheng said that each of the institutions would need to create their own plan because of the differences in the individual budget deficits.
“The path forward for Central is going to be different than the path forward for Western, which is different than what it might be for CT state and so forth,” said Cheng.
The board called on Cheng to lead a review of academic programs “to ensure that they meet the mission of CSCU in a cost-effective manner.”
Originally, the board planned to set aside $4 million from reserves to assist the colleges and universities with creating the deficit mitigation plans, including hiring a consultant to scrutinize the system’s finances and make recommendations for the future. But the plan to hire a consulting firm was removed after some members of the Finance and Infrastructure Committee pushed back on the idea.
According to a report from the Finance and Infrastructure Committee, the colleges and universities are projecting at a shortfall of $13.7 million in FY 2024 and $146.7 million next year.
Regent Ari Santiago said that while the tuition increase made sense in light of the costs, the colleges and universities needed a long-term plan to address the overall declines in enrollment.
“We cannot keep doing what we’ve been doing. I don’t think dipping into reserves to pretend that it’s going to change the trajectory is going to work, and incremental tuition increases aren’t going to solve our problem either. We need to chart that new path forward,” said Santiago. “We have to recognize the situation that we’re in. We don’t serve the same number of students we have served in the past. Everybody’s got to take accountability [for] that.”