When politicians promise they can address fiscal challenges by creating efficiencies, eliminating redundancies, and leveraging expertise, we ought to take notice. A sharp manager might be able to bring a new fiscal discipline to inefficient state agencies. Reality, however, does not always conform to managerial will. Even the best designed plans sometimes fail to meet budget expectations.
In April 2017, President Mark Ojakian and the Board of Regents initiated the “Students First” strategies to merge the state’s 12 community colleges into a single Community College of Connecticut with 12 campuses and to consolidate “back office” functions across the 17 CSCU institutions. The plan was estimated to save $42 million annually.
In December 2017, the BOR’s finance committee provided the first “preliminary quantification” of the projected savings. It specified that the community college merger would be completed by July 2019. Savings from attrition and layoffs of non-unionized personal were forecasted to reach annual savings of $8.7 million in fiscal year (FY) 2019, and $17.7 million in FY 2020, with still more savings to follow in 2022 when the no-layoff provision of the recent labor agreement expires
In the preliminary quantification, the system office acknowledged that there may be some minimal transitional costs, but not a single dollar was budgeted. In subsequent documents, the total transition costs were estimated at $2 million.
To date, only a fraction of the projected savings have been realized, transitional costs have escalated, and the timeline has been extended. The extension in the timeline is in part due to the initial failure of CSCU to receive approval of its application for accreditation from the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE, formerly NEASC) for the single state community college. Without accreditation, students would not be eligible for federal financial aid, which is essential for operations.
Last June, following NECHE’s rejection, the system office and the BOR regrouped, made moderate revisions to the plan, and recommitted to the consolidation. The revised plan anticipates reapplying for accreditation in 2023 with annual savings for the community college consolidation of $23 million.
Lengthening the time line to 2023 has increased costs over the short and the medium term from the savings targets made 15 months ago. The CSCU system office is anticipating finishing FY 2019 with a $4 to $7 million deficit and is currently estimating that the budget shortfall for FY 2020 may run as high as $57 million even after Gov. Ned Lamont had added 5 ¼ percent to the state’s allocation to cover negotiated salary increases.
Over the next four years, the community colleges must continue to meet the functional requirements of an accredited college, while the system office builds a centrally organized administration.
Over the last year or so, the system office has added several new positions: a vice president for enrollment at $170,000, a vice president of purchasing at $147,000, an executive director of the library at $111,000, an executive director of student success at $115,000, an associate director of student success at $83,000, and two associate vice presidents of academic and student affairs at $130,000 each.
The system office is also completing searches for three new regional presidents with salaries between $150,000 to $225,000, as well as a vice president for equity. On the campuses, new associate deans are being hired with salaries of around $90,000 with an expectation of hiring a total of 34 new associate deans by the completion of the consolidation. Fringe benefits add 75 percent to the more than $3 million in annual salaries listed here.
The cost of the system office has grown from just over $30 million in FY 2017 to a projected $39.5 million in FY 2019 – an increase of more than 30 percent. This increase has a direct impact on students because it drains money that never gets out to the campuses.
After the consolidation is complete, the expectation is that 163 fewer people will be employed across the community college system. The specific positions that will be lost have not identified in a public document, but more importantly, the redrawing of organizational charts to arrive at a loss of 163 positions is only a hypothetical exercise. Whether the new trimmed structure will be able to meet functional requirements can only be fully evaluated when it becomes operational.
Perhaps going forward the question should shift from: How much is this going to save? To, how much is this going to cost?
In a national context, the idea of merging public higher education institutions to save money is hardly unique to Connecticut. In recent years, Georgia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, Indiana, and other states have sought to merge institutions to reduce administrative costs. Declining levels of state support, growing levels of student debt, and lower enrollment due to demographic changes have led to fiscal challenges for many states.
The results from these efforts are mixed at best, although it is clear that mergers are no panacea. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lee Gardner concluded, “Perhaps the most surprising — and possibly unwelcome — lesson is that mergers may not actually save much money.”
Recently, President Ojakian sent an email to all faculty and staff in the CSCU system citing a recent report by TIAA that seemed to confirm the value of mergers. He quoted, in particular, results from a Georgia merger: “Prior to their merger administrative costs at the Georgia Health Sciences University, with a total budget of roughly $450M, were approximately 6.3 percent; at Augusta State University, with a total budget of roughly $70M, administrative costs were approximately 17 percent. Post-merger, the administrative costs of the merged institution, GRU, were approximately 6.7 percent.”
This is a success story of sorts, but it saved only 1 percent of the total budget. President Ojakian is proposing to save $23 million out of a total budget in 2018 of $455 million which would be 5 percent, or five times more than the best comparison example he can find. In the Georgia example, a big place absorbed the administration of a small place. That is not the case in Connecticut, where a new administration is being created on top of 12 colleges.
In an historical context, the apparent fiscal crisis that precipitated the BOR’s Students First plan grew out of years of declining levels of state support for higher education that became especially acute in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 economic crisis. The state’s eroding budgetary condition imposed fiscal austerity on the system that simultaneously resulted in increases in students’ costs/debts and cutbacks in student services and opportunities. Full time professors were replaced by adjuncts; retiring academic advisors were not replaced; hours of operation were reduced.
The consolidation was a response to what appeared to be an unsustainable condition, and that is a reality that must still be faced. But we also need to face the reality that we are a long way from where the BOR expected us to be when the merger was announced two years ago. Millions of dollars in salaries and labor time are being poured into a system office that does not educate anyone at the expense of the life of the campuses and the places where students go to learn.
There is another still deeper, but even more troubling reality. While the state government faces deep financial challenges and seems unable to meet current obligations, Connecticut remains the wealthiest state in the country, although it also the second most economically unequal. In this context, the very institutions that offer the most opportunity for the most economically challenged young people in the state are the ones that presumably we can no longer sustain. Perhaps, then, the real crime of the proposed merger is that it presumes we can cut deeper into what was already a budget of austerity under a pretense that it is putting students first.
Stephen Adair is Professor of Sociology at Central Connecticut State University and recipient of the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from CCSU, the university’s highest honor. Lois Aime is Director of Educational Technology at Norwalk Community College. Charlene LaVoie is Director of the Office of the Community Lawyer in Winsted. Colena Sesanker teaches philosophy as Gateway Community College. Patrick Sullivan teaches English at Manchester Community College and is the author of a recent book about community colleges, Economic Inequality, Neoliberalism, and the American Community College. Matt Warshauer teaches history at Central Connecticut State University and is the author of Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and Partisanship and Connecticut.
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