Double-digit tuition increases being considered by college system

Faced with cuts in state funding, declining student enrollment and mandatory pay raises for faculty, the Board of Regents for Higher Education is considering raising tuition by as much as 12.4 percent next school year.

"I don't think it's a surprise, given the budget cuts... This is pretty simple math," Gary F. Holloway told regents on the executive and finance committees Tuesday.

Gary Holloway

Gary F. Holloway, head of the finance committee of the Board of Regents for Higher Education: ''No surprise'' considering recent budget cuts.

Over the last two school years, state funding for the dozen community colleges and four state colleges has declined by 15.3 percent, or $49.4 million. Declining enrollment also is making the system's projected deficit larger than expected.

"We are facing great challenges," said Philip Austin, interim president of the 100,000-student system.

If approved, this would be the largest tuition and fee increase since 2004 for the state colleges.

Holloway, the chair of the finance committee, said a double-digit percentage increase is necessary just to continue providing the existing level of services at the system's 16 campuses.

Officials said the colleges have nearly run out of places to cut spending. The colleges recently incurred a $14.4 million mid-year budget cut ordered by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Those cuts resulted in 46 vacant teaching positions not being filled. Plans to create and hire another 47 faculty positions have also been stalled. Additionally, tutors and advisors at several community colleges have been eliminated. Courses offered at all the schools have been trimmed back or class sizes increased or are being taught by adjunct professors instead of full-time faculty.

Additionally, the childcare center for students and staff at Northwest Community College has closed and the recently built fitness center at Naugatuck Community College has closed. In total, 187 positions will remain vacant to makeup for the cut.

Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said she often hears that too many students cannot get the classes they need.

"This isn't going to help," she said. "This is not a good picture for our students. We are walking a very fine line here if we don't invest... It's just not good for our state."

After enduring years of budget cuts, regents Chairman Lewis Robinson Jr. said something has to give. On top of the state funding reductions, the college employee contracts negotiated by the Malloy administration require a 5 percent salary increase each year for the next three years and no layoffs are permitted. Enrollment is also down by as much as 4 percent at some of the colleges. For Southern Connecticut State University, this under-enrollment means an additional $5.9 million shortfall.

"To me it indicates that it's not going to be enough to tinker around the edges [of the budget]," Robinson said.

Other board members said they have no reason to believe state legislators and the governor are going to reverse course on these budget cuts. In fact, the state is facing a deficit of as much as $1.2 billion for the upcoming fiscal year and college officials are bracing for additional cuts coming their way.

The co-chairwomen of the legislature's Higher Education Committee said the increases facing college students are disappointing.

"We've gone past cutting the fat. We are down to the bone here. They're backed into a corner," said Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury. "This is a shot across the bow to us that they can't take any more cuts... This really is a tax on students."

Current tuition and fees at the state colleges are $8,556 for a full-time commuting students and $19,119 for students living on campus. To continue providing existing services, tuition and fees would need to increase by $1,060 for commuter students and $1,375 for students living on campus.

The University of Connecticut, which operates under a separate administration, has experienced $47.9 million in state budget cutbacks, or 13.6 percent. A spokeswoman for the system said there are no plans right now to go beyond the 6 percent tuition increase approved already for the upcoming schools year to help pay for the hiring of new faculty. "We're waiting for more information on what the state's next budget will bring and aiming to absorb much of the recent reductions through efficiencies," spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said. "We'll have a better sense of revenue, spending, and reduction changes when the Board of Trustees takes up the budget this spring."

Officials for the other colleges said they are beginning to discus with student representatives the need for tuition increases and coming up with some formal recommendations for the board to consider adopting.

Malloy's office -- who asked college officials not to raise tuition above the rate of inflation when cutting their budget two years ago -- said this consideration does not come as a surprise.

"These are challenging financial times, so it's not surprising that increases in tuition are being considered by our institutions of higher education. That said, it's premature to start determining the extent of those increases. We look forward to working with the Regents going forward on a plan that manages this issue for the long term," spokesman Andrew Doba wrote in a statement.

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter at @jacquelinerabe