President of CT’s state colleges seeks small tuition increase

Unfazed by the $11 million his colleges have been forced to save by not filling vacant positions and a lingering $4.5 million deficit that still needs to be closed by June 30, the president of the state’s largest public college system is asking his governing board to adopt a “modest” 2 percent tuition and fee increase for students next school year.

Gregory W. Gray’s tuition plan comes as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is asking the legislature to funnel to the Board of Regents for Higher Education $45.1 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But the system president said the 2 percent tuition increase will happen regardless of the outcome of the governor’s request with the General Assembly.

“Whenever you see a [multimillion-dollar] commitment from the governor, some of my very good presidents start to count the dollar signs in their mind,” Gray said during an interview. “The presidents should not feel this is a financial [bailout]…. We will be committed to whatever the board approves” March 13.

Instead, he said, the additional money from the state will be earmarked for very specific initiatives. These include creating “early colleges” at every community college so high school students can graduate high school with an associate’s degree as well, and a buy-one-get-one-free program to entice students who left college before graduating to return.

The governor’s plan to provide a lump sum payment to the system office overseeing the 17-college system to decide where it goes didn’t sit well with everyone, including Republican legislators and the faculty union that represents the four state universities that grant bachelor’s degrees.

This is a departure from the state’s current funding structure. Currently, legislators approve separate funding for two- and four-year schools and for the online college. Lawmakers also approve the specific number of positions the state will pay for each year.

“I can’t imagine anything that would give me less confidence in the ability of the Board of Regents to oversee this money,” Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, told Gray during a budget hearing this week at the Capitol complex. Markley was referring to missteps by the college system’s previous leaders.

Gray responded that a system-wide funding approach is appropriate in order to move the system collectively in the same direction.

Gray hopes the system-level enrollment strategies – between the Early Colleges, the buy-one-get-one-free courses and the modest tuition increases – will result in 4,000 additional students enrolling next year. There are currently 92,000 students enrolled at the dozen community colleges, four state universities and online college.

“With only a 2 percent tuition hike, we will get enrollment. From a business perspective, that translates into more revenue,” he said.

If successful in boosting enrollment by 4 percent by next school year, the Connecticut State College & University system will be bucking the recent downward trend in enrollment the schools have faced as the state’s traditional college-age population shrinks.

“We are aggressively trying to change that trend,” Gray said during an interview, adding that he was willing to take a bet he will make it to 96,000 students by next fall.

As for the $15.5 million deficit — the result of an enrollment decline — that the college system was responsible for closing this school year (nearly 2 percent of its budget), regents on the board’s executive committee learned last week that $11 million in savings has already been realized by not filling many positions as they become vacant and eliminating various programs.

The schools now need to close a $4.5 million deficit by June 30.

“I have met with all the president and asked all of them to give me a plan on how they are going to bring their budgets in the black, and they have done it,” Gray told the regents. Those plans were not available to The Mirror.

“This is the financial world we in public education now live in. It’s just the reality. Our presidents need to understand going into next year that even though we were fortunate enough to have Transform [CSCU 2020], basically, their day-to-day operations is not going to be impacted. They are going to have to be very careful of any costs.”

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