Danbury — If the plan of the new president of Connecticut’s public college system works, enrollment at the 17 schools will increase by nearly 10 percent over the next few years.

Gregory Gray, who became the leader this past summer of the recently merged 12 community colleges, four state universities and online college, is unfazed by the steady drop in enrollment the schools have experienced over the past several years or the projection that fewer students will be graduating from high school and heading to college.

“We plan to grow our enrollment,” Gray told faculty and students at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury this week.

Gray’s plans include persuading nontraditional students — like the 7,000 veterans returning from oversees in the coming months — to enroll and arranging for high school students to enroll in new “early college” programs run by the community colleges.

Gray reached out to high school  students, though on a smaller scale, when he was chancellor of a community college in southern California.

On Thursday, Gray told his governing board in Connecticut: “We have to look at some new markets.”

The ConnCSU system needs an infusion of new students, and the tuition dollars they will bring. Declining enrollment and other fiscal challenges have forced it to cut course availability and freeze the hiring of full-time faculty.

“We have financial problems… Enrollment drives our budget,” Gray said Wednesday, talking to the packed auditorium of students and faculty at WCSU during the hour-long forum.

Another initiative Gray is considering to boost enrollment at the four bachelor’s degree-granting institutions: giving community college students incentives to continue their education in the system by allowing them — once they complete their associate’s degree — to transfer to a Connecticut State University and continue paying the cheaper tuition of the community colleges. While other states he has looked at have taken this step, no decision has been made yet whether this will be offered in Connecticut.

Just three-quarters of community college students who transfer to other universities enroll in another school in the ConnCSU system. Gray’s plan -– dubbed “Excel CT” -– will eventually outline strategies to reduce that exodus of one-quarter of its students, he said.

Charter Oak, the system’s online college, currently enrolls just 1,600 students a year. Gray said he sees online education as the system’s future and is considering requiring every student to take six to nine credits online before they graduate.

“That college will see the greatest transformation in this new plan,” he said while at WCSU. “I think Charter Oak will unleash a great opportunity for increased student enrollment… We are going to offer more courses online.”

Gray said moving courses online could also save the system money. This could be accomplished, he said, by offering students across all the 17 institutions some of the same online courses -– essentially centralizing courses — to make sure they are fully enrolled and courses aren’t duplicated.

Some students think this is a bad idea.

“We know the professors… I have a concern with saying, ‘Take history 101 or [psychology] 101 with a professor on the other side of the state that I don’t even know or through Charter Oak,’” Patrick Shea, a senior at the Danbury university told Gray.

Faculty are also apprehensive.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. Multiple unique perspectives being taught -– that’s the core essence of higher education,” Pat Garcia, a nursing professor at Western, told Gray during the forum.

David Boyajian, an adjunct art teacher at Western, said he’s already concerned about too many courses being taught by part-time professors. Moving more online will just further hurt students’ experiences, he said.

“They’re cheapening education by limiting faculty exposure,” Boyajian said during an interview after the forum. “Going online? That eliminates all of that exposure.”

College officials have largely turned to tuition and enrollment increases to compensate for state budget cuts. In Connecticut, enrollment in higher education programs surged for years before it started to dip in 2010.

The University of Connecticut, which is separate from the ConnCSU system, is also planning for spikes in enrollment, despite the demographics showing the drop in traditional college-age students.

UConn’s “Next Generation” plan approved earlier this year by the legislature promises to grow enrollment at the state’s flagship university by one-third over the next 10 years. UConn, which is operated by a separate board, plans to enroll students who would otherwise be headed out of state for college, officials there said earlier this year.

Specialty colleges

The presidents of the four Connecticut State Universities recently compiled a report for Gray to consider including in his “Excel CT” final plan.

The presidents recommend designating each of the state universities with a specialty in an effort to attract students interested in those subject areas. For example, Southern Connecticut State University’s identity would focus on its being a “Health and Human Services” university, while Western would focus on “Visual and Performing Arts.”

The faculty union is not supportive.

‘We cannot support a strategic plan that places primary emphasis on campus ‘specializations’ at the expense of our commitment to comprehensive education at each university,” a letter from union leaders to central office staff reads.

While Eastern Connecticut State University’s specialty would be “liberal arts,” some faculty and students worry that specializing could diminish the importance of the liberal arts majors like political science, philosophy and the arts.

The plan “should make clear the CSU mission and vision and should include a request for financial support for them, especially support for a broad-based liberal arts curriculum at all four universities. To do otherwise would be to build on an insecure foundation,” union leaders wrote this week.

But Elsa Núñez, a vice president of the system and the president of Eastern, said there is no intention to undercut a  focus on a liberal arts education.

“I don’t think a focus on [science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors] will diminish the focus on liberal arts,” Nunez said during an interview.

Gray’s plan would also include boosting enrollment in the community colleges’ programs in allied health, information technology, financial services, hospitality and advanced manufacturing, though which school would focus on which areas has not yet been determined.

Gray said having these clusters makes sense in order to align business needs with the graduates being produced by the state’s largest public college system.

The Department of Economic and Community Development reports that the state’s economy needs all of these areas filled.

“These clusters are in alignment with what we focus on in economic development,” Jim Watson, a spokesman for the state agency, said.

Next steps

This framework of a plan will likely be finalized by April or May, Gray said. But with the legislature convening in February and ending in May, there is no doubt that the system plans to present something to state lawmakers and ask for money to implement those initiatives.

“The way we are financed now will not fund this,” Gray told his board. “The timing is right, and the opportunities are many.”

CSU president’s proposals for final system plan.

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Faculty letter to CSU president’s proposal for their schools.

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Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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