We know that the wealthy recovered, and even prospered, after the last recession. But working people, who were hardest hit, never fully recovered. Neither did our public higher education system.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the state combined 17 of our public colleges and universities into one system, overseen by a single board. Since that merger a decade ago, the state has cut per student funding by about 20 percent. Compared with the late 80’s, it has reduced by 50 percent.
The Board of Regents has been charged with governing 17 complex and distinct institutions under rotating leadership (five system presidents all within the first six years of its 10-year existence), while being aggressively defunded. It is an impossible task. Even under the best conditions, this design is not what you’d expect if the health of our institutions were a priority.
It has resulted in one incoherent restructuring plan after the other. In desperate conditions one must do something, and the chosen coping mechanism has been to rebrand the attempt to do more with too little with inspiring names —Transform 2020 and now Students First– and call it innovation. The budget and staffing at the system level has ballooned in an attempt to keep up with the challenges. Currently, the portion of our funding under control of the system office — at which there are no students — is larger than the allocation to any of our community colleges. Meanwhile, acknowledged staffing and funding gaps at the college and universities — where students are — go unaddressed.
The most recent proposal for dramatic change is a desperate attempt to merge 12 colleges into one to reduce costs. It has, during the pandemic, directed funds away from our students toward new administrative positions at a college that doesn’t yet exist thereby funding administrators, not students, first. This ambitious transition was projected to cost almost nothing but has already cost tens of millions of dollars and will cost significantly more in the next few years, if the plan is followed. And all in a mad scramble toward a mega-institution that faculty and staff worry will not deserve to be called a college and will not serve the needs of our communities; an institution that does not yet hold any status with an accrediting body. Sometimes less is just less.
What a mess. And while it’s expensive to be poor, that’s not the situation we face. Per capita, this is the richest state in the country. We don’t lack the resources. We lack the will to commit to robust public goods and the vision to see that Connecticut will not recover without it.
As state funding levels have steadily decreased, students of color compose a larger and larger portion of our student body. The number of Black and brown students more than doubled between 2003 and 2013 and now, at the community colleges, more than half of students identify as non-white. The majority of our students qualify for Pell grants. Is the willingness to demolish the colleges as we know them and replace it with something else connected to these transformations?
The conversation about race and justice rose to the forefront, nationally, in 2020. As we have learned, the most insidious forms of racial discrimination are not about attitudes, intentions, and prejudices. They are about policies, power, and allocation of resources. As the rise in the number of students of color has coincided with the decreased support for public higher ed, it is our responsibility to address these policies as a node in a larger network of policies that undermine life chances for people of color and for working folks, generally.
Despite all this upheaval, Connecticut’s public colleges and universities are still amazing places where the next generation can be educated without working decades to pay off college debt and effectively becoming indentured servants in the process. They are where Connecticut can turn to prepare themselves for the post-pandemic economy. They are the places where an informed and discerning citizenry is developed.
But we are under attack and holding on for dear life. Recent proposals to increase class sizes and faculty workload, standardize curriculum, eliminate all standalone developmental courses, modify university prerequisites by mandate, and others are proposals that will fail our students and our communities. They are proposals that punish the portion of our population who bear the greatest tax burden and narrow their future prospects. (See chart below from this report.)
I highlight the consequences of the last decade to underline this question: Do we want to double down on the mistakes following the last economic crisis and contribute to further widening the gap between haves and have-nots in an already deeply unequal state? Or are we going to do something different this time?
What is the value of success to the tune of billions of dollars in wealth if that success can’t be shared to create opportunity for others? We need a tax policy that allows our most privileged residents to be good neighbors. We need to provide real solutions to those who have borne the brunt of the pandemic and who have always carried the weight of our tax structure. We need adequate funding and an organizational structure that prioritizes quality over consolidating costs. We must charge our leadership with overseeing the protection, rather than the destruction, of public higher education.
- Adequately fund our public colleges and universities so that they are not forced to cannibalize themselves in a scramble for survival.
- Ensure adequate oversight so that we fund students and their education rather than bureaucratic bloat and corporate consultants. Oversight is adequate when it is performed by those who demonstrate a commitment to the ideals of public education, and who are accountable to its constituents.
- Stop saddling our future with the debts of the past through accounting schemes that hobble our colleges and universities and pass costs along to students. There are other ways to satisfy past promises.
So many are hurting right now. There is so much we must do to just survive. In moments like these, it is easy to let anything more than bare minimum slip through our fingers. But we can create the conditions for justice. Let’s make sure that when we survive this thing, we can also hope to thrive.
Colena Sesanker PhD. teaches philosophy at Gateway community college and is the current chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the Board of Regents.