It has been nearly nine years since the Connecticut Legislature approved Gov. Dannel Malloy’s reorganization of the four regional universities, 12 community colleges and an online college into one system, the Connecticut State College and University System. With the inauguration of a new governor and a newly appointed Connecticut Legislature Education Committee, it is wise to review the original premise and to analyze the progress that has been made.
Premise No. 1
Governor Malloy’s press release on Feb. 9, 2011, stated, “a sweeping plan to overhaul the state’s higher education governance and structure to provide more resources for classroom teaching and instruction to help increase the number of students receiving degrees.” The press release further stated, “the plan will empower Connecticut State University System and community college local campuses without closing or combining them, while at the same time saving tax payers and students tens of millions of dollars over time.”
The National Center for Higher Education Management (NCHEMS) analysis of state-wide public systems for higher education states “there is no evidence that centralization leads to better systems.”
There is little proof that after eight years of existence, the Connecticut State College and University System (CSCU) produced more graduates than it would have without consolidation. There is overwhelming data that the rates for student retention and graduation have not improved with the consolidation.
However, the low graduation rate is a result of a complete failure of the elementary and secondary school system to graduate students academically prepared for college. With the exception of a few affluent communities, the majority of high school graduates from Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport graduate from high school with the equivalent of a 10th grade education. It is not reasonable to expect the CSCU System to make up the academic deficiency.
The consolidation did save taxpayers money. But the savings is not due to the consolidation, rather it is due to the fact that the governor and legislature has significantly reduced funding to the CSCU System. In addition, the elected leadership has reneged on its responsibility to fully fund collective bargaining contracts and has passed on the financial obligations back to the campus.
The governor was wrong that students would save tens of millions of dollars over time. As the governor and legislature advocated for less funding to the CSCU System, student tuition and fees have increased dramatically. Students are paying more, not less for their education.
Premise No. 2
Gov. Malloy quote: “I’m proposing this overhaul to help put more money toward teaching and less toward central office and board hierarchy.”
The expansion of system office personnel and related salary cost is a direct contradiction to Malloy’s stated intention of less funding and growth to the central office and more focus at the campus level. The system consolidation has not resulted in less board hierarchy. The Board of Regents has transitioned from a coordinating board to a management board with full authority over all matters ranging from finance to academic affairs. There is zero indication that increased funds have been dedicated to faculty, instruction, and the academic enterprise.
Premise No. 3
The System President and the Regents believe the unprecedented financial challenges facing CSCU are the result of several converging environmental factors: decreases in state funding for higher education due to continuing budget deficits in Connecticut’s economy, declining high school enrollments and graduations in Connecticut resulting in enrollment declines and reductions in tuition revenue at colleges and universities, collective bargaining and fringe benefit cost increases, and an expanding structural budget gap. (Source CSCU System Students First Planning Document)
In reality, the budget crisis is a result of the governor and the legislature reducing overall funding for higher education and passing on to the campus the collective bargaining and fringe benefit cost increases.
It is not reasonable to blame the budget crisis on a decline in student enrollment. As early as 1999, there was valid and reliability data that indicated a dramatic decline in high school enrollment to be followed by a similar decline in college enrollment. The reports indicated the enrollment decline to be especially severe in the Northeast. Perhaps someone was not paying attention.
Premise No. 4
Given the budget challenges, the CSCU System leadership believes the consolidation of the community colleges will save $28 million. Leadership also believes that consolidating back office operations such as purchasing, human resources, and information technology will save an additional $13 million. Furthermore, the plan calls for eliminating 200 administrative positions. (Source CSCU System Students Firsts Planning Document)
The System President and the Board of Regents have contracted with education consultant agency, the National Center for Higher Education Management (NCHEMS) to develop a plan for the consolidation of the 12 community colleges into one college that will be accredited by the New England Association for Colleges and Schools.
NCHEMS, at the request of a Connecticut legislator in 2011, weighed in on the plan to consolidate the community colleges, regional universities and an online college into one system and stated the reorganization would not be cost-effective. NCHEMS analysis further stated that board consolidation rarely results in big savings, at least not for a long time. NCHEMS leadership states “a combined system requires upfront investment, before it can reap savings.” (Source Inside Higher Education)
There is no level of system and campus consolidation, campus closer, faculty and staff personnel termination, academic program elimination, enrollment growth or tuition increase that can fix this fiscal problem. The collective bargaining agreements will be an impediment to any personnel reduction. Nearly 80 percent of the budget is dedicated to personnel in respective unions.
Gov. Malloy’s reasons for consolidating the two systems were based on a set of faulty premises. His misguided reasoning 1) It would save taxpayers millions, 2) Save students millions of dollars over time, 3) More resources for classroom teaching and instruction, 4) Increase the number of students receiving degrees, 5) Less funding towards the central office, and 6) Reduce Board Hierarchy. It has been eight-plus years and not a single goal has been accomplished.
Plain and simple the governor and the Connecticut legislature were wrong. NCHEMS was correct, there is no evidence that centralization leads to better systems.
It is easy to get lost in the debate over consolidation, it only serves as distraction from the main event. Yes, there are faculty, staff, politicians, and others who believe two separate systems with one board is better. This might be true, but any system will fail without adequate funding.
Although there are many who have helped the system and campus to underperform, the villains in this story are Gov. Malloy and the Connecticut legislature for not funding the community colleges and regional universities. This has led to a fiscal crisis that could jeopardize accreditation and federal guidelines to award financial aid. The 16 campuses would have a difficult time achieving a passing grade on a financial stress test.
The Governor and the Connecticut legislators have earned a grade of “F” for not funding the system that they created. Malloy and his politicos have made a real mess. We now need Gov. Ned Lamont to demonstrate some courage and come to the rescue.
Michael Gargano Jr. is the CEO of The Education Think Tank and past president of St. Vincent’s College and Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs at the Connecticut State College and University System.
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