Packed Hearing as UConn, State Colleges and Universities Press Legislators for Added Funding

Ilene Garcia testifies at a public hearing on higher education funding at the state Capitol (CT Examiner)


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HARTFORD — Roughly 150 professors and students testified at the State Capitol on Tuesday and hundreds submitted written testimony asking legislators for an off-year increase in funding for Connecticut’s public colleges and universities as school administrators threaten tuition hikes and steep cuts in academic programs and student services to make up for budget shortfalls and the loss of federal coronavirus dollars.

Anna Malavisi, a professor of philosophy at Western Connecticut State University, wrote in testimony that when she first started teaching at Western, her department was offering about 16 courses each semester. Last fall, she said, they offered six. 

“With further budget reductions, I fear that philosophy will be either reduced or eliminated. Offering five philosophy courses which include an introductory course, and two service courses is not indicative of a sound philosophy program,” Malavasi wrote. 

Mary Mattheis, a biology professor at Gateway Community College, said that her Human Anatomy and Physiology class fills up within hours because it is a requirement for students in the Nursing and Health programs. 

“Due to budget cuts, we offer fewer sections than ever before, and it will only get worse in the future with the budget deficit that we are looking at for 2025,” Mattheis wrote. “That leaves them with two options: wait and try again next semester, even though it likely means a delay of a year or more before they can start on their career path, or go to another school that will cost significantly more and be significantly harder to get to since many of our students do not own cars.” 

Other faculty members testified about increased class sizes, searches for new professors frozen mid-search, deferred maintenance and broken or back-ordered equipment. 

Last year, the legislature’s biennial budget included $82.6 million less State College and University funding for FY24 and $131 million less for FY25 – a drop mainly due to expiring federal COVID aid 

Chris Collibee, spokesperson for Gov. Ned Lamont, told CT Examiner in November that the Colleges and Universities “have some work to do” to address declining enrollment. According to figures provided by the Office of Policy and Management, fall 2023 enrollment was 19 percent lower than in the fall of 2019 – a significant loss of tuition dollars.

In a statement to CT Examiner on Wednesday Collibee said that the Governor’s administration was in close contact with both UConn and the CSCU system “to ensure we are doing everything possible for the students.” He noted that they would be meeting with the legislature’s budget committee after the hearings ended.

“The Governor has been highly supportive of both UConn and the CSCU systems, increasing baseline state appropriations every year,” Colibee said, adding that the 2025 budget had been approved by “an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority.” 

Terrence Cheng, Chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, told legislators on Tuesday that cost-cutting last November balanced this year’s budget, and cut next year’s projected $140 million shortfall by over $100 million.

But Cheng said it wasn’t enough to eliminate deficits next year, particularly for CT State Community College and Western Connecticut State University. That, he said, would require an additional $47.6 million from the state. 

Cheng warned that the alternative would be to refuse reappointment for about 300 part-time staff members and possibly laying off 300 more full-time staff. 

“This would be a financial crisis,” Cheng told the legislature’s budget committee. “This would be an absolute code-red, defcon 1 situation.”

In Western’s case, he said, they would have to consider eliminating academic programs. Cheng said the most expensive programs to run, like manufacturing and nursing, were also the programs most critical to building the state workforce.

“What we would see is a massive downgrade in the quality and the stability of the education that we could and should and need to provide to those who need it the most,” said Cheng. 

Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, who teaches Asian and World History at Western, told the budget committee on Tuesday that the university had eliminated its child care center in 2019, reduced its library staff from eleven workers to five over the last three years, and left elevators broken and plumbing failures in the dormitories because of a lack of maintenance. 

“The efforts to squeeze budgets everywhere will eventually cost state taxpayers much more when the proverbial chickens of deferred maintenance come home to roost,” he said. 

Legislators respond

Democratic legislators expressed outrage at the condition of the colleges and universities, saying that the majority of students who attend the public colleges end up working in Connecticut, and asking how the universities could continue supporting students’ needs without the proper funding. 

State Rep. Corey Paris, D-Stamford, questioned how the community colleges and universities could keep their student enrollment when budget cuts were forcing them to eliminate cafeterias, reduce library hours, close fitness centers and reduce tutoring services. 

“It makes me, quite frankly, sick to my stomach. And I think that we should be ashamed of ourselves for not doing more for this system, in one of the wealthiest states in this country,” said Paris. 

State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said that it was clear that the Community Colleges and Universities weren’t able to support the population — a large portion of which are minorities — with the funding they had. 

“We’re doing things right now that are making it less possible for these people to get out of our system to be successful. It’s taking longer. People are leaving. They can’t get the classes they need because we don’t have those classes,” he said. “It makes no sense to me to ask for less than what we want. And if there’s somebody who thinks that this is just about living within a budget, they don’t understand what the future of this state looks like.” 

Republicans were more cautious around the prospect of funding the public universities further. State Sen. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, the Senate Minority Leader, said in a statement that the CSCU system needed to explain why senior members of the administration were given “large raises” around the same time that they decided to raise tuition. 

“With regard to all public higher education agencies, we must hear about systemic efficiencies that are being created and implemented in order to safeguard taxpayers’ dollars now and in the future. Those efficiencies will ensure students are getting the education they are paying for,” Harding said.

State Rep. Joe Hoxha, R-Bristol, questioned the amount of money being spent on “wraparound services” for students, like mental health support and career advising. 

“I understand that in a perfect world, we want to create an environment that’s the most conducive to learning. But my opinion is that that doesn’t really set them up too well for the real world where you have to pay for your own gas and you have to pay for your own lunch,” said Hoxha. 

Cheng responded that students who attend school now, in contrast to those who were in college 30 years ago, had been affected by social media and the COVID pandemic. 

“We know that wraparound services are going to help our students. The ones that are already, they’re not starting at the starting line. They’re starting 10 paces behind the starting line. And that is not a judgment. That is not a criticism. That is an observation. And I think we have to be fair and mindful of that if we’re going to actually try to help them succeed.”

UConn asks for $64.3 million

Nor was the state’s flagship university exempt from the shortfalls. The University of Connecticut is requesting $47.3 million for its main campus and $17 million for UConn Health to cover its own budget deficits. 

The university will receive $47.7 million less funding in 2025 compared to this year, almost entirely driven by the loss of federal coronavirus aid and an infusion of state dollars to stabilize UConn’s finances following COVID restrictions.

UConn President Radenka Maric testified that the university would also ask the state to cover all wage increases under negotiation — about $12.3 million for every 1 percent salary increase. 

Maric said the university was also aiming to cut its academic budget by five percent each year for the next three years, and administrators were trying to figure out how to bring more students into UConn without compromising education quality. She said the university had received a record 58,000 applications this year. 

But Maric also said the cost-cutting would mean fewer advisors, larger classes and would take students a longer time to earn their degree. 

Maric said that UConn received about 22 percent of its revenue from the state. In comparison, Stony Brook University in New York receives 40 percent of its revenue from the state, Rutgers University in New Jersey receives 30 percent of its revenue from the state, and the University of Maine has a budget that is 24 percent state-funded. 

State Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, pointed out that the way the state was funding the University has shifted over the past 14 years, reducing the state grant amount and increasing the reliance on tuition. Over that period, he said, tuition at UConn has increased 227 percent. 

Haddad added that a similar shift had happened with the CSCU system — in 2011, he said, the percentage of the budget supported by state aid was 39 percent, while it was currently 25 percent. 

In each of the last two years, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities have increased their tuition five percent. 

Students speak 

Students testified that they were already being affected by cost-cutting, and that they feared what the future would bring. 

Justin Sabadosa, in his 6th year at Central Connecticut State University, said in testimony that he was working a full-time job and going to school at night. Financial aid, he said, wasn’t an option, because his parents made too much money, but refused to help him pay for school. An additional increase in tuition, he said, would probably make it impossible for him to continue. 

“My junior year I dropped out to pay for my rent (which isn’t cheap), my car and insurance (which isn’t cheap), tuition (which isn’t cheap to begin with), and so much more. I worked full-time for about a year when I decided I couldn’t do what I wanted without a college degree, so I went back to school,” he said. “I am taking 6 classes which are full-time, and working full-time and I still don’t have money to do anything on the weekend with my friends, or even to use gas to drive home to see my family. A 5% increase would most likely put me under to a point where I might not be able to afford classes anymore.”

Others talked about how important some of the services — like food pantries and clothing closets — were critical to their ability to survive. 

Carla Galaise, a student at Northwestern Community College, said she started at Northwestern as a single mom after escaping an abusive marriage. Even with public assistance, she said, she had to work full-time in addition to her studies.

“My entire life I had to scrape the barrel for help, but suddenly, now, I had the support I needed. Food stamps still don’t cover our bills  but I can visit our food pantry every week. When I couldn’t afford to buy my son a winter coat, I went to the Kids Kloset and came out with far more than that. When I needed professional clothing for my new internship at the [Legislative Office Building], I went to the Kare Closet, and came home with two bags stuffed to the brim. These are just three of the many other services I’ve used,” she said. 

And Ilene Garcia, a student at UConn who identified herself as “the first in my family who will be graduating with a bachelor’s of anything in the United States of America” said that she was in her final year at UConn when she was hit with a $2,000 fee that she could not afford. But she said the UConn Waterbury campus found a way to award her the $2,000. 

Garcia warned that if the state continued with the cost-cutting, they would take away the extra funding that they use to support students like her. 

“Because of the university grants, thousands of dollars have been deducted from my tuition. Thousands I could never afford,” said Garcia. “And now I get to reach what my parents never could. A college degree.”

This story has been updated with additional comments by Collibee


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.