As the legislative session draws to a close, the budget debate continues but in a much different environment than last year. Hopeful predictions for the future are changing the discussion from “slash and burn” to restoration and rebuilding. As you search for common ground in a budget that will demonstrate government’s responsibility to ensure the quality and availability of public services, we urge you to invest in public higher education by preventing the threatened closure of community colleges.

Suggestions to close colleges and increase tuition dramatically are being advanced by President Mark Ojakian of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities. These draconian measures have been threatened repeatedly as Ojakian attempted to create a single Connecticut community college with a centralized bureaucracy by eliminating leadership, services, and resources from the local community colleges.

Fortunately the Commission on Higher Education (CIHE) of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges rejected this flawed plan, with President Barbara Brittingham calling it “half baked,” because it failed to meet the accreditation standards that ensure the quality and integrity of the courses, programs, and services provided for students.

Eligibility for Federal Financial Aid also relies on accreditation as does the content and rigor of degrees and certificates that prepare students to graduate, transfer, or enter the workforce. NEASC accreditation protects students and parents from the deceptive practices and promises of unaccredited providers. And they protect each of us by ensuring that the nurses, radiation technologists and police officers we all depend on are competent to protect us.

Both guidance and advisory opinions were offered by NEASC to the Board of Regents as the plan was developed by  Ojakian. Questions were asked and advice offered by national and state experts, college faculty, administrators, and knowledgeable advocates for the colleges. All were ignored and called oppositional as the board followed Ojakian’s lead and approved flimsy proposals and ill-advised plans. Ojakian listened only to his own determination to cut the budgets and gut the colleges.

We and other community college advocates understand the state’s extraordinary fiscal challenges and support the streamlining of administrative services wherever possible. (The community colleges have been remarkably successful in this area with many shared academic and technology initiatives.)

Eliminating colleges, as is being threatened by Ojakian, would add to the state’s challenges. The state’s economy and its large and small employers rely on an educated and skilled workforce. It is unknown which colleges will be targeted for closure; each college is an essential part of the community it serves. Imagine a college in a struggling city or small town being eliminated where that college is an educational, economic, and cultural resource. Any closure reduces access and poses a devastating threat to its community. Students rely on community colleges in every part of the state for access to affordable educational opportunities and services that make a better quality of life a possibility for themselves and their families.

Please consider the damage that would be done to thousands of students if higher education is out of reach. Also please consider alternative plans that would invest in preserving essential services that can offer a solution to the state’s fiscal woes.

New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are offering free community colleges while Connecticut is being threatened with college closures. Almost any governance structure can work if the mission of equal and affordable access to opportunity is supported with adequate resources allocated honestly and transparently to meet the needs of Connecticut’s students.

We cannot help but feel that the failures of the leaders appointed to head the state colleges and university system, including the Board of Regents and five presidents in the last seven years, are responsible for the mismanagement and potential devastation of community colleges. It is certainly time for new leadership, new plans consistent with CIHE and NEASC Standards, and new opportunities for students.

Cathryn Addy, President Emerita, Tunxis Community College; Jonathan Daube, President Emeritus, Manchester Community College; Booker DeVaughn, President Emeritus, Northwestern Connecticut Community College; Robert Miller, President Emeritus, Quinebaug Valley Community College, and members of The Connecticut Community College Round Table.

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