HARTFORD — The Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee is set to face various challenges in the upcoming legislative session, primarily the declining enrollment at the state’s educational institutions.
The Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees Connecticut’s 12 community colleges, four regional state universities and Charter Oak College, is looking at a $140 million deficit. Additionally, enrollment is down at most universities in the state, an exception being the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
At first glance, committee Co-Chair State Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, said, addressing the shortfall can appear daunting. But it’s something that Slap said he takes seriously.
Slap said he’s against raising tuition. Rather, he said, higher education needs more state funding and out-of-the-box solutions to address the money shortage. He noted a retirement incentive initiative aimed at senior staff that could potentially save upward of $92 million.
The program, approved by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system of the Board of Regents in December, includes either a $30,000 payment or an amount equivalent to 1 percent of a person’s salary multiplied by their years of service.
Eligibility, according to the resolution approved by the Board of Regents last month, states that the employee must have at least 10 years of service as of May 31, and is currently eligible for normal retirement under the employees’ respective retirement plans.
“There is a real budget crunch at the schools,” Slap told CT Examiner last week. “The retirement incentive is a way to get out of the deficit and save money. I’m very concerned that we don’t enter this kind of death spiral where we are increasing tuition to fix budget holes.”
Slap said tuition increases could heighten the enrollment problem, with more students opting out of higher education due to a lack of affordability.
“It’s going to take funding,” he said, adding the exact amount must be negotiated with Gov. Ned Lamont’s office.
However, Lamont has previously said that funding for state colleges and universities would be cut this year because of the spending cap.
“We are going to have some robust discussions about that,” Slap said. “… There are many of us who want to make sure we are adequately investing in higher education and don’t want to see spending cuts that will undermine the quality of education. We also want to avoid tuition increases. We have been enjoying a budget surplus for a while and that is going to be changing. Those are not sustainable, but we need to make sure our public institutions, higher education, are not damaged in the process.”
The state Legislature approved a $1.1 billion budget for the CSCU system for fiscal year 2024, and $910.6 million for 2025. Regarding UConn, $367.7 million was budgeted for 2024, and $294.3 million for 2025.
Overall, Slap said, last year’s legislative session saw several important measures come out of his committee — out of 30 bills, 13 became law.
Slap expressed particular pride in two measures, one extending eligibility for debt-free community college in the state, and the other offering financial support to nursing students of the now-defunct Stone Academy.
The debt-free community college program was expanded in 2023 to include returning students and increased the minimum grant amounts for the Pledge to Advance CT program. The funding program covers the gap between federal and state grants students receive, community college tuition and mandatory fees.
The state budget provides $23.5 million to the debt-free program in 2024 and $28.5 million the following year.
“This is all so important because we are never going to be the lowest cost state, but we really need to be the smartest, best educated in the country,” Slap said. “That’s our goal — to have the best trained workforce — and it doesn’t mean a four-year or advanced degree. It can mean a lot of different things, but it means being highly credentialed and it means getting people the training that they need to be highly skilled and to have good employment.”
Slap’s said another big accomplishment was helping former Stone Academy students who were left in limbo after several branches in the state closed abruptly.
“These students were really given a raw deal,” he said. “They were people, in many cases, that did not have a lot of money. Many sunk significant money, their life savings, into becoming nurses and we desperately need nurses in the state.”
The bill, Slap said, helps reimburse out-of-pocket costs for Stone Academy students and allows the Office of Higher Education to give additional grants and support to former students.
In December, a judge also issued a $5 million judgment against Stone Academy and its owners. Students will not receive any money until a class-action lawsuit goes to trial; jury selection is set for this fall.
Despite the headway made on addressing student debt, Slap said he’s disappointed the final bill did not permit students who graduated from out-of-state high schools to take part in the program.
“I wouldn’t have been eligible myself,” said Slap, who graduated from high school in Springfield, Mass. “We are a small slate surrounded by a lot of other states. We have people who have been here a long time who have not graduated from a high school in Connecticut. I think it’s crazy that there is a restriction. … We have this challenge with declining enrollments and we need to get our workforce educated, and this would have put students in seats in classrooms. It seems like a no-brainer.”
Slap said he’s hopeful the provision could be changed in this year’s session, and that he’d also like to see increased funding for the Roberta B. Willis Scholarship Program.
“We wanted to increase funding for the scholarship program [n 2023], but we were really not able to significantly do that,” he said
The Willis scholarship is the only state-funded scholarship available to Connecticut residents who attend an in-state public or private higher education institution. It consists of three types of awards: need-merit, need-based, and Charter Oak grants. The program was budgeted for $24.8 million in both fiscal years 2024 and 2025.
Slap said his committee works closely with its Republican members on bringing bills forward and discussing them in a cordial manner.
“Support of higher education is not, naturally, a partisan issue. We have two really wonderful ranking members of the committee, who we have worked together on many bills,” he said, referring to Republican Minority Leader State Sen. Kevin Kelly, Stratford and State Rep. Irene Haines, R-East Haddam.
“As an example, we do screening together with the Republicans,” Slap said. “That’s when we get together with the lawyers and the research staff and discuss strategy on bills, to really put our cards on the table and decide which bills are going to advance. I enjoy being able to work across the aisle.”
On other issues, Slap said a bill establishing a Green Jobs Corps Program and one prohibiting public higher education institutions from receiving money for soliciting students to gamble online were both important measures passed.
The Green Jobs Corps Program requires the Connecticut Clean Economy Council to develop a workforce training plan for green jobs, or jobs that employ green technology, to accomplish the state’s greenhouse gas emissions goals. Among other things, the plan must include the development of work-based learning programs for green jobs and workforce shortages, and must identify any available public or private funding to develop the programs and award grants to apprentices and students.
“We need to make sure we are meeting the needs of the workforce and that involves green jobs, which are critically important,” Slap said.
Relating to the measure on online gambling, Slap explained, “We did that to head off a potential problem. It was not happening in Connecticut, but one of the members of the committee read an article that in one state a university was soliciting students via email, I believe, for gambling and encouraging them to go gamble, which we thought was very inappropriate. … We needed to make sure the bill was tailored in a way that, even if a school had some kind of partnership with one of the casinos, for example, that we were not going to advertise it to the students.”