Community Colleges Consider More Online Courses, Program Cuts Amid Projected Deficits

Southern Connecticut State University student Rakim Grant speaks at a rally before a Board of Regents meeting on Nov. 15, 2023 (CT Examiner).


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

Eastern wants more online course offerings. Central wants a new program for health care sciences. And CT State, the three-month-old consolidation of the state’s 12 community colleges, is considering decreases in part-time faculty, fitness center closures and offering more college classes to high schoolers. 

These were some of the strategies that Connecticut’s public institutions of higher education presented at a Board of Regents meeting on Wednesday as methods to reduce multimillion dollar deficits projected over the next two years.  

In June, the Board of Regents ordered the colleges and universities to create plans to decrease their spending and increase revenue in anticipation of a drop in federal coronavirus relief funding.

Chief Financial Officer Lloyd Blanchard told the board that the schools were facing a $13.7 million revenue shortfall this year and a $140 million shortfall in 2025, which he attributed to a decadelong drop in enrollment and the loss of federal funds, as well as a change in the way the state covers the institutions’ fringe benefits cost. 

The schools have been warning of a budget shortfall since February, when Gov. Ned Lamont unveiled a proposed budget that then-Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes estimated would leave the colleges and universities with a $453 million deficit over two years. Although the state Legislature increased that budget, it still fell short of what the institutions were asking for. 

Connecticut State College and Universities Chancellor Terrence Cheng said the schools had made progress in decreasing the deficit, but that there was only so much they could do. 

“This may be as far as we can go before taking more drastic, more painful, and more harmful steps. To be clear, these mitigation efforts are already having a negative impact on our faculty, our students, our staff, and our operations,” he said. 

Chris Colibee, spokesperson for the Office of Policy and Management, told CT Examiner that the state block grant for the CSCU system was higher than in previous years, and that federal COVID relief dollars were meant to be one-time funding. He also noted that enrollment at state colleges and universities had decreased 19 percent since 2019 and 30 percent since 2014. 

“The CSCU system continues to have some work to do to adjust to the market that it serves, a market whose demand has contracted over the last decade,” he said. “The administration is working closely with the CSCU system to assist it in meeting these challenges, consistent with the state government’s obligation to live within its means.”

David Blitz, a philosophy professor at Central Connecticut State University and a faculty representative to the Board of Regents, said Wednesday that there were other reasons the schools were short on money, including the costly transition to a single community college system, which did not incur the cost savings it promised. He also said the CSCU 2030 Plan was “an overreach” and one of the causes of the underfunding from the state. 

‘Priced out’ of education

Students and faculty members gathered to protest before the Wednesday meeting, holding signs that read “No Tuition Hikes” and “Fund Our Future.” They criticized the fiscal guardrails approved by the state Legislature last year, which prevent the state from spending more than a certain amount of its revenue, and that the administration was proposing a tuition increase despite the state’s substantial rainy day fund. 

Cody Zimmerman, a student at Tunxis Community College, said he feared how the cuts would affect him as a disabled student on campus.

“They’re cutting disability office support,” he said. “They’re cutting IT support, computer science support, tutoring services, or enrollment services. They’re cutting classes that already exist on other campuses — campuses I can’t get to due to my disability. And they’re talking about taking away UPasses that help me get from place to place because I can’t drive.”

Melissa Lamar, director of media and public relations for CT State, responded that Tunxis was not cutting disability office, IT, or computer science support, or enrollment services, nor were there “unusual” cuts to classes, although there were some reductions to tutoring because of “natural attrition.” She said she did not know of any discussions to take away UPasses. 

Rakim Grant, a student at Southern Connecticut State University, said he was concerned about consolidating programs, which could mean friends of his who take the bus to school would now have no transportation. He and Zimmerman also referenced the anticipated tuition increases, which Grant said would make retention rates worse. 

“I could tell you about my friends who see that bigger bill and never come back to campus, and how many in my community are already priced out of an education. What matters is that this will make the inequalities in our system even more pronounced,” Grant said. 

‘They are not ancillary’

During the meeting, university presidents outlined their institutional plans to balance their budgets. 

CT State Community College President John Maduko and CFO Kerry Kelley told the board they would not lay off full-time staff who are part of the collective bargaining unit, instead planning to reduce the number of part-time faculty and educational assistants and leave vacant positions open. Maduko said they had also eliminated eight executive management positions. A chart they provided indicated they plan to remove 776 course sections in fiscal year 2024.    

But Colena Sesanker, a philosophy professor at Gateway Community College and faculty representative to the board, said three-quarters of the staff that the colleges employ are short-term, contingent employees. 

“Those short-term workers staff the essential functions of our colleges. They are not ancillary. They are in every office performing essential functions,” she said. “We are taking for granted a 5 percent tuition increase going forward. We are actually describing conditions where we are offering significantly less to students for more money.” 

Kelley said the changes would also reduce operation hours, take away options for student work and close fitness centers, which she argued would negatively impact students.  

Maduko also said increasing the number of high school students taking college courses was “the missing link.” He explained just 3 percent of CT State’s population were dual-enrolled students, compared to the 15 to 40 percent at other community colleges. 

Eastern Connecticut State University President Elsa Nunez told the board that her school had eliminated certain courses and reduced the number of credits students in some majors needed in order to graduate. She also said they were looking at ways to offer more online master’s programs. 

Central President Zulma Toro said the university will ask the Board of Regents next month to approve a College of Health and Healthcare Sciences. She also said they are working on additional engineering and nursing programs, a new field of climate change studies, and investing in a forensic lab for criminal justice and chemistry fields. 

Western President Manohar Singh proposed developing programs in AI, machine learning and quantum computing, and increased recruitment of high school students. 

The presidents also addressed hiring freezes, tuition increases and reduction of adjunct faculty. Southern Connecticut State University President Dwayne Smith estimated that reductions in adjunct faculty and savings from unfilled positions would result in a total of $2.6 million in savings. 

Board member Richard Balducci said he believed state leadership was watching the colleges and universities, and that they were on the right track. 

“I think the governor, the legislature and the leadership at the House and Senate and OPM are looking at what we’re doing. I think they’re really paying attention and thinking we haven’t done what we probably should have done in the past. I think we’re on the right step with the leadership here,” he said. 

The Bisk debate

One proposal generated particular consternation among faculty members. 

Nunez said she was working to expand Eastern’s master’s degree programs through a partnership with Bisk, an online marketing and management firm that touts itself as helping schools improve student retention and recruitment.  

Nunez said she estimates the university will earn $1.5 million in 2025 and $2.7 million in 2026. 

But members of the CSU chapter of the AAUP, the faculty union for university professors, told CT Examiner they were against the agreement with Bisk. Louise Williams, a history professor at Central and CSU-AAUP president, said Bisk would receive 50 percent of the tuition dollars that students paid for the classes. 

“We’re a public university, and we don’t really think that we should be doing business with private companies that are profiting from our students,” she said. 

She also said current Eastern faculty members would create courses which Bisk could then give to a different set of faculty teaching the courses online, who could be paid less. Williams argued this arrangement violates the university’s collective bargaining agreement.

“We object to that because, as faculty at the Connecticut State Universities, we have ownership over our courses. It’s our intellectual property. And in our contract, it is our intellectual property and nobody can use it except for us unless we give permission,” she said. 

However, Eastern Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs William Salka disputed any violation of the collective bargaining agreement, telling CT Examiner that Eastern’s chapter of AAUP was in support of the contract. 

“Bisk is helping our faculty develop high-quality, asynchronous online courses that will only be taught by the Eastern faculty members who develop the course,” he wrote. “Faculty members retain the rights to the course content they develop and Eastern’s course content will not be shared with other institutions partnering with Bisk.” 

Williams said the Eastern chapter was not in favor of the Bisk agreement and had planned to file a grievance.

This story was corrected to add a missing “not” in the following: “CFO Kerry Kelley told the board they would not lay off full-time staff who are part of the collective bargaining unit.”

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.