The public relations work related to “Students First” has been conducted so skillfully that it has become difficult to get a firm view of where we actually are and how things are going. For more than two years, we’ve been given very optimistic projections, and assurances by the state of Connecticut. But what do we know for sure right now?
Investigative reporters have a good solution for understanding situations like this, which are complicated by controversial claims made by very skilled personnel: “follow the money.” Here’s what we know for sure about the money for “Students First:”
Fact: Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian has increased system office expenditures by over 50% in the past three years. He has added over $16 million to his own budget, while cutting funding to community colleges and raising tuition and student fees. This does not put students first.
That $16 million could be used to strengthen student-facing services by hiring more full-time advisers, counselors, and faculty, which our system desperately needs.
Here are the system office expenditure totals for the past four years:
- 2017: $30,330,990
- 2018: $34,312,167
- 2019: $39,500,000
- 2020: $46,690,000
No other branch of Connecticut government has grown at this rate. If we add in costs not accounted for anywhere — like faculty and staff “on loan” to the system office — the Board of Regents has increased spending by more than half as much as it has promised to save.
Fact: In 2011, then-Gov. Dannel Malloy promised to reduce spending at the system level and return the savings to the colleges. This has not happened. Instead, colleges continue to pay more and more of student tuition revenue to cover system expenditures.
Fact: As Christopher Newfield, a nationally recognized expert on higher education, has noted, “Connecticut, though the No. 1 richest state by our preferred funding metric of personal income, has cut its funding for its [community colleges] by nearly 12% just in the last four years. The longer trend is dismal: though Connecticut appropriations are above national averages, they are still 19 percent below their 2008 levels, while tuition is 41 percent higher.”
Fact: Since 2011, a variety of reorganization and cost-reduction schemes have been implemented by the Regents to offset budget shortfalls. They have all failed.
Fact: The legislature has been adding to the higher education budget: $8 million in 2018, $16 million in 2019 and $24 million in 2020. These numbers are certainly comparable to the increases in the community college portion of the system office budget. Unfortunately, the system office has accumulated all of these increases.
Fact: Much has changed with state finances since 2016. It is no longer plausible to say that the current path is unsustainable.
Fact: The Regents recently received a six-page letter from our accrediting body, the New England Commission of Higher Education, stating that compliance with accreditation standards is not optional.
Fact: After working for more than two full years on “Students First,” faculty and staff across the state in May overwhelmingly cast a vote of “no confidence” in the “Students First” plan, in Ojakian, and in the Board of Regents for the CSCU system.
Conclusion: No matter what the Regents say publicly, this consolidation plan is not working on any level. The data are overwhelming.
Fund community colleges, not the system office
Our community colleges are struggling under austerity budgets, but that is in large measure because the system office is absorbing additional appropriations rather than dispersing them to campuses. It seems the Board of Regents needs to maintain the appearance of a crisis in order to keep pursuing “Students First.”
Policy recommendation: Take the money and resources being poured into the system office and direct them to the various community colleges. Fund community colleges, not the system office. That office then would return to supporting community colleges rather than dismantling them and appropriating their resources.
Stephen Adair, Central Connecticut State University
Lois Aime, Norwalk Community College
David Blitz, Central Connecticut State University
John Christie, Capital Community College
Francis M. Coan, Tunxis Community College
Anne E. Dawson, Eastern Connecticut State University
Lauren Doninger, Gateway Community College
Brian Donohue-Lynch, Quinebaug Valley Community College
Diba Khan-Bureau, Three Rivers Community College
Riaz Lalani, Norwalk Community College
Kevin Lamkins, Capital Community College
Charlene LaVoie, Community Lawyer
Patricia O’Neill, Western Connecticut State University
Ronald Picard, Naugatuck Valley Community College
Minati Roychoudhuri, Capital Community College
Teresa M. Russo, Gateway Community College
Colena Sesanker, Gateway Community College
John Shafer, Middlesex Community College
Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community College
Kathy Taylor, Naugatuck Valley Community College
Stephen Monroe Tomczak, Southern Connecticut State University
Lisa Van Dermark, Asnuntuck Community College
Matt Warshauer, Central Connecticut State University
Louise Blakeney Williams, CCSU-AAUP President, Central Connecticut State University
Carmen Yiamouyiannis, Capital Community College