State needs new strategy for funding higher education

With steep increases in college tuition and ominous predictions for the state’s economy, it is time to rethink strategies for paying for Connecticut’s public colleges, says state Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti.

Meotti echoed the warnings in a new national study showing that many states, including Connecticut, have slipped in their support for higher education even as the appetite for college degrees has grown sharply.

Nationwide, the recession that began in 2008 “dramatically reduced state revenue and ended the growth in state and local support for higher education achieved between 2004 and 2008,” said an annual report by the Colorado-based State Higher Education Executive Officers.

Among the 50 states, Connecticut had the sixth highest rate of enrollment growth – much of it at two-year community colleges – between 2004 and 2009 but saw a sharp one-year decline in state financial support per student between 2008 and 2009, dropping 5.7 percent, the report said.

“It’s clear what’s happening now is tuition is being asked to bear more of the burden,” said Paul Lingenfelter, SHEEO’s president.

Even with substantial increases in state and federal funding, public support for colleges  has not generally kept pace with enrollment growth and inflation, leading to tuition increases in virtually every state, he said.

At the University of Connecticut, for example, Chief Financial Officer Richard Gray this week will recommend a 5.8 percent increase in student tuition and fees – a move that would for the first time push the level of revenue from students above the level the state provides for running Connecticut’s flagship university.

Gray warned that even with a similar increase the following year, UConn could face a deficit of up to $40 million, meaning fewer professors, larger class sizes and the possibility that students would not be able to schedule the classes they need to graduate in four years.

That, said Meotti, would be unacceptable.

“We are about to enter this excruciating period of time for state budgeting of all kinds,” Meotti said in an interview. “I’d make the argument that [higher education] is one of the best investments possible, but it’s still going to be affected.

Meotti said higher education officials, legislators and the successor to retiring Gov. M. Jodi Rell next year should tackle the question of how to keep college affordable in spite of the worsening budget crisis. As the state shapes its next budget, Meotti said he wants leaders to understand “what their decisions have to do with the impact on tuition.”

He cited the example of Maryland, where educators and state officials, led by Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, gained national attention for a cost-cutting program that began several years ago and helped the University System of Maryland and Morgan State University freeze tuition for four years.

“It was popular. It was extraordinary,” said Christopher Falkenhagen, director of communications for the Maryland’s Higher Education Commission. “Students who graduate this year will not have seen a penny of increase” in tuition, he said.

In addition to the cost-cutting measures, Maryland increased support for public colleges, and O’Malley supported steps such as using a portion of corporate tax receipts for a higher education and workforce investment fund and authorizing more than $220 million in capital funds for the state’s community colleges, according to the commission.

In Connecticut, Meotti said officials should examine different strategies for UConn, the Connecticut State University System and the Connecticut Community Colleges system. The two-year community colleges, for example, have undergone the biggest enrollment surges and “are in the eye of the storm,” he said. “Public policy doesn’t mean everybody gets treated the same.”

According to the latest SHEEO report, states vary widely in the level of higher education revenue generated by tuition, ranging from about 12 percent in Wyoming to nearly 84 percent in Vermont. Connecticut is in the middle of the pack at 40 percent, slightly above the national average.

“The reality is that in sheer gross dollars Connecticut has been pretty generous to higher education in comparison to other states,” Meotti said. But, he added, “that history of generosity in tough budget times increases the size of the challenge.”

He said it is crucial for political leaders and the public to understand the link between higher education and economic recovery.

“The future of this state in terms of its ability to compete and provide economic opportunity is based on the ability of its residents to get valuable and relevant post-secondary credentials. . . . You’re just not going to get ahead as an economy or as an individual with just a high school diploma.”