Malloy’s CT state college plan: Transformative, or a bailout?

Manchester Community College

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

Manchester Community College

The state’s largest public college system is facing a $42.1 million deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1 even after a 2 percent tuition and fee increase is expected to go into effect next year.

This deficit comes as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is asking the General Assembly to funnel an additional $45.1 million to the 16-campus Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system for next year through his “Transform CSCU 2020” initiative.

That initiative, however, appears to be part program, part bailout, or a “tuition supplement,” as college officials are calling it.

With an expected budget of $1.2 billion next year, the $42.1 million shortfall represents about a 4 percent gap in the operating budget of the 92,000-student system.

“Wow. Just wow,” said Rep. Toni Walker, the House chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, reacting to the size of the shortfall.

The Transform 2020 plan — if approved by the legislature Malloy has proposed it — doesn’t funnel all of the additional state money to rescue the state’s dozen community colleges, four bachelor’s-degree-granting universities and online college.

Nearly $21 million would cover new initiatives. This would include opening “Early Colleges,” for high school students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, and offering free courses to persuade students who didn’t complete their college degree to “Go Back to Get Ahead.”

College official say the expected influx of additional students from the buy-one-get-one-free course offering would translate to 7,000 more students enrolling at the schools by next school year – an 8 percent jump in enrollment and an additional $8.6 million in tuition payments from the new students in the first year. The plan is that by the state picking up the costs of three courses, the students would have the incentive to continue in school until earning their degrees. The additional tuition they pay would be a key source of revenue to improve the system’s grim fiscal picture over the next few years.

The state colleges have never seen the enrollment increases that have been budgeted for in this plan. In the last 20 years, from one year to the next, enrollment increases have typically hovered around 1,000 additional students. The most enrollment ever increased from one school year to the next was by 5,000 students, and that came during a time when more traditional-age college students were graduating from high school.

Today, college officials project that the number of students who will graduate from high school this year will decline by 1.8 percent, which is why they are targeting nontraditional students who have dropped out or veterans returning from duty. Over the last four school years, the number of students enrolled at the schools has declined by 4,500 students.

“We need to make sure that Go Back to Get Ahead is successful,” Gregory Gray, the system’s president, told the Appropriations and Higher Education committees Thursday.

A ‘crapshoot’

While she said she supports offering the free courses, the House chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee isn’t convinced it will work.

“It’s a crapshoot,” Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, told Gray and other college leaders during a workshop on the governor’s plan at the state Capitol complex.

College officials said an influx of additional students will be easy to accommodate given that they have the teaching and classroom capacity to accommodate an additional 4,500 students because of the recent enrollment decreases.

If the full 7,000 students are enrolled, the chief financial officer estimates an additional 89 courses will need to be offered and staff hired to teach them at a total cost of $4.3 million for next school year.

Gray said the plan is to start advertising for students as soon as possible, via billboards, direct mail and in advertisements on the radio and newspaper. If the system has a better idea soon of whether more students than capacity allows will enroll, officials can start seeking faculty and adjunct teaching staff.

Where did this deficit come from?

The college system is facing massive increases in employee costs next year, which have nothing to do with Malloy’s Transform initiative.

The college system’s budget chief estimates payroll will cost ConnSCU an additional $41 million next fiscal year (a 7 percent increase); covering employees retirement and health care will cost an additional $19.8 million (a 25 percent increase); and other costs will increase by $9.5 million.

Several factors are driving these spikes, including increased contributions the colleges must pay into some of its active and retired employees’ health and retirement plans. The contract the Malloy administration entered into with the state’s employees’ union also requires that the schools increase union employee wages on average by 5 percent again next year, and it allows employees to switch over to the state’s pension system from the 401k-type retirement plan, a move that is will require colleges to contribute millions of dollars more.

On the revenue side, state funding has been cut in recent years as costs continued to increase, though the governor’s “Transform CSCU 2020” would bring funding above the pre-cut levels given in 2011.

The lower-than-expected enrollment has caused also caused major shortfalls in revenue recently. The $42.1 million projected deficit the college is facing is based on 1,700 fewer students enrolling next year.

“This is if we do nothing,” Gray told legislators on the size of the deficit he faces.

College officials last week said they have already cut $11 million this school year and plan to cut another $4.5 million before the fiscal year ends June 30.

These cuts have meant library hours have been scaled back, various programs have been eliminated, some class sizes have increased, and some positions are not being filled when they become vacant.

“It’s incumbent upon us to make up some lost ground,” Willis said. “We all know in the scheme of things, it’s pretty paltry.”

Republicans seem to agree.

“Even I recognize the need to give more money to the community colleges,” said Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, a tea party ally and one of the legislatures more conservative members. “We all know how strapped they are.”

The president from the University of Connecticut, the state’s flagship public university and part of a separate system, also told legislators this month that they “are already down to the bone”. UConn faces most of the same challenges ConnSCU faces with increased costs and had to tap $30 million from its emergency reserves for this school year to cover its operating budget.

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