Budget problems may close the ‘open door’ to community colleges

FARMINGTON–Officials of the state’s community college system, a point of entry to higher education for thousands of low-income and non-traditional students, are considering ending the longstanding “open door” admissions policy because of a projected $44.3 million budget deficit over the next two years.

“We are caught between two numbers. We cannot afford to take in more students this year then we did last year,” Win Oppel, a trustee for the Connecticut Community College System, told his colleagues Monday at Tunxis Community College. “We have the responsibility to put a cap” on enrollment.

Such a cap would put an end to the rapid enrollment growth the 12-campus community college system has experienced in recent years. Enrollment has grown by nearly 50 percent since 1998, from about 39,000 to more than 58,000 this year.

But community college officials have warned that diminishing support from the state has strained their ability to grow, and that the time will come where they will have to reconsider the policy of accepting everyone who applies. That time appears to be now.

Trustees will vote at their June meeting on a budget that provides no funding to hire more employees to teach additional students.

“We are going to put as many students in classrooms as academically appropriate,” said Marc S. Herzog, chancellor of the college system. But the budget doesn’t give him the option of hiring staff to accommodate more students.

“The community college system as we know it is going to end,” David L. Cannon, a longtime trustee from Preston. “How are we going to continue to offer access under these unconscionable shortfalls? The open door is going to close.”

Much of the blame for having to limit enrollment was placed on budget cuts approved by state legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. In addition to facing rising costs, the community colleges had their funding cut by $13.2 million over the next two years.

“If they want to fund us appropriately then we will accept everyone,” said Oppel.

“These are some of the consequences of budget cuts. They are real,” said state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford and co-chair of the Higher Education Committee. “I hope they do everything to accept every student possible.”

A spokeswoman for Malloy shared that sentiment.

“While this is the first were hearing of this, in difficult fiscal times, everyone is being asked to do more with less. We hope it would impact student learning as little as possible,” said Colleen Flanagan.

On top of the budget cuts, college officials said, the concession deal between the Malloy Administration and state employee unions compounds the problem by limiting staffing options. The deal includes provisions that are expected to result in about 1,000 workers’ retiring this summer, with most not being replaced. It also protects those union workers who remain from layoffs.

“If a biology faculty retires we don’t know that we are going to be able to replace them,” said Herzog. The concessions agreement means the colleges can’t lay off less essential workers to shift money to other areas.

“How do we do this without layoffs? That’s going to be a real strengthening exercise for our system,” Herzog said.

Community college officials also said they want to avoid raising costs for students beyond the 2.3 percent increase in tuition and fees approved by trustees earlier this year.

“We don’t want to be balancing our budget on the back of our students,” said Vicky Greene, the chief financial officer of the community colleges.

Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of the community college system, said having an open-door application policy has long been a proud tradition of the state’s community colleges, but said trustees have no choice now but to consider ending that.

“This is antithetical to the community college mission,” she said.