State colleges and universities bracing for budget storm

Officials at Connecticut’s public colleges and universities are bracing for another tough budget year as the legislature and new governor grapple with next year’s $3.67 billion deficit.

“Public universities are definitely on the firing line,” said Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti. “The next several years are going to be the toughest budget years higher education has faced in the last 50 or 60 years.”

“We all know cuts are coming. It’s just a matter of how much,” Connecticut State University System Chancellor David G. Carter told a student member of the Board of Trustees at a recent meeting.

And legislators are not trying to allay those concerns.

“Public universities are preparing for what they expect to come, and that’s cuts from the state,” said Rep. Roberta B. Willis, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee and a Democrat from Salisbury. “Universities have to control their costs and find savings.”

Speaker of the House Christopher Donovan on Tuesday said Higher Education is definitely on his radar.

“I think there is some bureaucracy we could cut back… Certainly look at higher education as one place,” he told John Dankosky on Where We Live.

Gov.-elect Dan Malloy also has warned that state institutions will have to tighten their budgets. Even at the upbeat announcement of a new president for the University of Connecticut last week, he would only commit to funding the school “at a level that is appropriate,” without promising there would be no cuts.

The dire budget predictions come against the backdrop of a new report by the legislature’s research office saying that the growth in higher education budgets has far outstripped the level of state General Fund support for the institutions.

While combined spending by the state’s three higher education systems — UConn, CSUS and the Connecticut Community Colleges — grew by nearly 230 percent over two decades, to $1.94 billion in fiscal 2009, the General Fund contribution increased by less than 83 percent, to $556 million, according to the Office of Legislative Research.

Meanwhile, in-state tuition and fees increased by 239 percent at the community colleges, 284 percent at UConn and nearly 353 percent at CSUS.

The rising cost of higher education has caused concern and prompted several reviews, including one by the legislature’s bipartisan Program Review and Investigations Committee into how colleges and universities are governed.

“The public in general has expressed discontent with the rises in higher education costs and spending,” says a staff report approved unanimously by the committee. “UConn and CSUS have been consistently ranked among the most expensive public university systems in the nation (numbers 9 and 11, respectively, in 2009 among peer institutions).”

But higher education officials warn cuts in state support would likely lead to even higher tuitions.

“We are left with no choice but to increase tuition so we can provide the same level of education… We are beginning to price people out of education,” said Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor for Connecticut’s dozen community colleges.

Last week, the board of the community colleges approved increasing tuition by almost 3 percent — to almost $3,500 a year for in-state students. And if state funding is cut in the coming months to help close the state’s deficit, Cox said the board would surely have to revisit tuition levels.

“There aren’t very many options” for cutting costs, she said, saying most spending increases are for personnel. The college system’s contract with unionized employees provides for 5 percent raises in the coming year, she said.

UConn will likely determine how much tuition will be for next school year in February.

“We’ve known for some time that (the upcoming year) is going to be a very difficult budget year. Just how rough it will be for UConn depends on what our state appropriation looks like,” UConn’s budget director Richard Gray wrote in a statement.

But things could have been worse for Connecticut’s public colleges over the last few years, said Bruce Vandal, director of postsecondary education for Education Commission of the States.

“There are states that are abandoning or retrenching their expenditures for universities… Connecticut has not begun to do that, so that’s good,” he said.

Six states — including Rhode Island, South Carolina and California — have reduced the actual amount they spend on higher education by five percent or more in recent years, reports the National Conference of State Legislators.

But with the recent signals from Connecticut lawmakers, university leaders are beginning to worry their state funding levels are in jeopardy.