Campus of Eastern Connecticut State University in Windham (file photo)
Campus of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic (file photo) CT Mirror

Connecticut’s largest public college system needs an 11 percent increase in its base-level state funding next year– just to limit an anticipated tuition-and-fee hike to 2 percent, according to the system’s administration.

The Board of Regents for Higher Education, which will consider the administrators’ request Friday, also continues to battle declining enrollment trends, and assumes it will have 2 percent fewer students in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

The colleges’ funding request is particularly challenging given that nonpartisan fiscal analysts are projecting a $1.4 billion hole – more than 7 percent of annual operating expenses – in the next state budget.

The regents’ Finance and Infrastructure Committee unanimously endorsed the request Thursday.

The regents’ system, which includes the four state universities, 12 community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College, will need about $630 million in the next state budget if it hopes to continue its policy of limiting tuition and fee hikes to 2 percent.

That’s $65.3 million, or 11 percent more than the funding legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy approved this year for the system’s operating block grant and staff fringe benefits.

The governor and legislature also approved a supplemental $42 million payment to the regents’ system this year to preserve existing programs and to launch a new initiative to bolster enrollment. But nearly half of that $42 million was raided from the Connecticut Student Loan Foundation and officials warned the regents not to count on receiving another supplemental payment in 2015-16.

Even factoring in that $42 million supplement, the support the regents’ system is targeting for 2015-16 still is 4 percent above all resources it received in the current budget.

“This is a hefty funding request,” said Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “Still, I understand why they are putting it in.”

Matt Fleury, chairman of the regents’ finance committee, said the regents would continue to search for options to reduce costs in the coming years, adding that an ongoing strategic planning process is expected to help in this effort.

Regent Richard J. Balducci, a former state House speaker who also serves on the finance committee, said the request for state aid reflects a serious effort on the regents’ part to limit students’ costs. “What we really are trying hard to do is limit any increase to the 2 percent level,” he said.

Willis said legislators recognize that the regents’ system and the University of Connecticut took major hits in state support three years ago when lawmakers and Malloy grappled with a state budget deficit of historic proportions.

Basic operating grants for the four state universities, the community colleges and Charter Oak combined fell by 11 percent in 2011-12, when legislators and Malloy struggled to close an 18 percent gap in state finances.

And the $315 million base block grant approved for the regents’ system this year still falls $7 million short of funding levels from four years ago.

“They took a significant hit,” Willis added. “There’s been nothing built in to keep up with inflation and they’ve had to spend down their reserves.”

The extra $42 million payment approved this year was a temporary stopgap, “but we weren’t making a long-term commitment. We were using one-time revenue sources to get by” for now, Willis said.

Still, the regents’ invested about $6 million of that $42 million in “Go Back to Get Ahead,” an outreach program designed to bolster enrollment by offering free courses to former students considering returning to college.

Very early returns on that program have not met expectations.

The regents’ were counting on enrollment throughout the merged system to grow by about 3,000 students – who in turn would boost tuition and fee receipts by $7.6 million. About 1,500 of those new students were supposed to arrive this fall.

Charter Oak President Ed Klonoski, who oversees the “Go Back” program, reported to the board last month that as of Aug. 15 only 558 had enrolled.

“We didn’t know if these initiatives are going to pan out,” Willis said. “A lot is based on the assumption they are going to be attracting more students.”

Willis added that legislators remain concerned about the rising cost of higher education in Connecticut.

With the 2 percent increase the regents approved for this year, the average annual cost for an in-state student living on campus at a state university is $20,461, and for a commuter it is $9,169. For a full-time, in-state student attending a community college, the average cost is $3,866.

Applying another 2 percent increase in 2015-16 potentially increases those costs to $20,870; $9,352 and $3,943, respectively.

“We will have to look at all of this very closely next (legislative) session,” which starts on Jan. 7, Willis said. “This has got a long way to go, we haven’t seen how these programs are going to play out.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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