Connecticut fires round 1 in possible tuition war with New York

Connecticut state university officials hope to lure college-bound students from New York state this fall by offering them in-state tuition rates if they enroll in one of five graduate programs.

Most of these programs have experienced dramatic declines in enrollment in recent years because of a drop in New York students willing to cross the border.

State officials dub this an “experiment,” and say if all goes well they may expand the in-state rates to more of their programs the following year.

“The attempt of all 50 states with declining budgets is to steal students from the other states,” said Robert A. Kennedy, president of the state’s 100,000-student Board of Regents college system. He said cutting in half what these students would have been paying to attend Western Connecticut State University in Danbury and making it comparable to New York’s rates could help fill these programs.

Western, just 5 miles from the New York border, will charge $9,681 in the fall for full-time enrollment in its Master in Education programs. Without the adjustment, the cost for out-of-state students would be $20,902.

The revised cost nearly equals that for a New York resident to attend a State University of New York school. SUNY now charges $8,870 in tuition and fees.

SUNY spokesman Dave Belki said New York has not considered lowering rates for students in neighboring states. “It’s just in- or out-of-state, there’s no in-between,” he said.

In addition to adjusting its rates, Western has also made the necessary curriculum changes to its programs to ensure that graduates from New York, or Connecticut, can teach at home when they finish.

Two online programs out of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven are also slated to be part of this experiment.

“When you’re talking about online programs, this makes sense to charge one rate,” said Marianne Kennedy, the university provost. These reduced rates will be available for the master in library science and doctorate in nursing.

Charter Oak, the state’s online university, does not charge the traditional double tuition for out-of-state students, but it does charge 30 percent more.

‘Reversing course’

Out-of-state tuition rates nationwide have had large increases in the past few years, reports the College Board. In Connecticut, rates for both in- and out-of-state students increased by 30 percent over the past five years, according to the New England Board of Higher Education.

“I haven’t heard of anyone reversing course and cutting tuition,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an association for university presidents. “I don’t think that’s a widespread trend.”

This year the average tuition increase at public universities across the country for out-of-state students was 5.7 percent, according to the College Board.

In Connecticut, those tuition increases have jeopardized a once vibrant Master in Education program at Western. Officials say they worry they have priced students out.

The graduate Education programs have “seen a considerable reduction in enrollment,” said James W. Schmotter, Western’s president. In the last five years, he said, out-of-state participation in the program has dropped from 90 to 32 students, with very few attending full-time.

Michael P. Meotti, executive vice president of the Board of Regents, said the reduced tuition is an effort to increase participation so the program doesn’t have to close.

“This drop [in enrollment] could cause the Southern program to go out of business,” he said, referring to the school’s online Master in Library Science.

The number of other programs with perilously low participation at the 17 colleges in the Regents’ system was not immediately available.

“It’s not surprising that the regents would do what they could to keep undersubscribed programs available,” said Hartle. “It’s a worthwhile experiment.”

The University of Connecticut, the state’s flagship university, does not offer in-state rates for any of their programs to students from other states, said a university spokesman.

Connecticut does have reciprocity agreements to charge lower tuition rates to college-bound students from the other five New England states, but it is still significantly more than in-state students are charged and the lower rate is available only when a home state doesn’t offer the program in which a student intends to enroll. Through those agreements, Connecticut is allowed to charge those students 75 percent more than in-state students compared with 250 percent more for students from the rest of the country.

Possible pushback

While this experiment to charge in-state rates was overwhelmingly approved by the Board of Regents for Higher Education Thursday, some concerns were raised.

“What makes you think they’re going to show up?” asked Nick Donofrio, a regent from Ridgefield. He said he’s not convinced that the price is what’s driving down participation; it may be that the demand is just not there.

Joni Finney, a University of Pennsylvania professor who specializes in higher education governance and public policy, agreed.

“If people aren’t going to your program, I would look around and ask what’s going on first,” said Finney, who is also associated with the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education. “If there’s no demand it seems to me to make a lot of sense to close the program.”

She said Connecticut would be better served figuring out how to lure in-state residents who do not have a degree and are not in college.

“They have a fair population that needs to go to college,” she said of Connecticut. “There are plenty of people they should be focusing on getting in their schools in state.”

She also said officials should not be surprised to get pushback from state taxpayers, who are effectively subsidizing their public colleges and in return are awarded with lower tuition rates.

“The residents, they expect to pay less,” Finney said.

Durring the same meeting, the regents approved a 3.8 percent tuition increase for Connecticut State Universities and 3.1 percent increase for the dozen community colleges. The community colleges and state colleges lost $29.9 million in state support this school year — a 9.2 percent drop — and are expecting further cuts for next year.