Gov. Ned Lamont is challenging the state’s public colleges and universities to adjust as federal pandemic aid expires.
Though his new biennial budget proposal technically increases “baseline” appropriations for the University of Connecticut, the regional state universities and community colleges, overall aid for all higher education units would shrink over the next two fiscal years.
And while the administration says that colleges and universities’ emergency federal coronavirus aid was temporary and that they should have planned accordingly, education officials — and some powerful state officials — say it’s not that simple.
The pandemic did permanent damage to higher education budgets as enrollment has shrunk, they say, setting the stage for a debate likely to continue well into the spring.
“If they have structural [budget] problems, they should deal with their structural problems,” state Office of Policy and Management Secretary Jeffrey Beckham, Lamont’s budget chief, said Wednesday as the administration rolled out its proposals.
“The federal ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] Funds, everyone knew full well, was an emergency, one-time injection of funds … to keep the doors open and keep everyone working,” Beckham said.
Lamont’s budget would effectively channel $887 million over the next two fiscal years combined to UConn, the state’s flagship university. That includes not only the main campus in Storrs and its satellite campuses but also the university’s health center in Farmington.
The $887 million specifically includes a $776.4 million baseline operating grant for the coming biennium. The rest involves the last of the state’s ARPA funding to give the university a “glide path” to adjust to life with no emergency federal aid after 2025.
But while UConn’s baseline grants totaled $753 million across this fiscal year and last, overall operating assistance — once temporary aid is counted — tallied almost $1.1 billion.
Similarly, baseline operating aid for the regional state universities and community colleges increases under the governor’s plan from $693 million in the current biennium to $755 million for the next two fiscal years.
But once temporary aid is considered, overall assistance for the regional universities and community colleges falls over the same period from $1.04 billion to $923 million.
The budget does include $15 million to continue the state’s debt-free community college program for another two fiscal years.
Representatives from UConn and the state university system told the administration they would need to retain that temporary funding and also receive more money to help them cover the big raises Lamont negotiated last spring for most state employees.
Lamont negotiated a four-year package of raises that included $3,500 in bonuses last spring and summer for about 46,000 unionized state employees. Each year includes a 2.5% general wage increase, as well as a step hike for all but the most senior workers.
Madeline St Amour, the Director of Communications for CSU-AAUP, which represents faculty at Connecticut State Universities, said now is not the time for any funding cuts.
"We're in need of strong and adequate funding now more than ever," St. Amour said.
"To put it in context, our students today are not the same students as years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic," St. Amour said. "We're trying to get those students back, but there's also more needs that we need to invest in that our current students have — for example, mental health support."
St. Amour said that budget cuts will affect whether the schools can provide those services.
"Adequate funding is important now in order to be able to provide our staff resources and aid to make our class sizes smaller and allow them to identify those high-need students easier," St. Amour said.
She also added that a lack of funding can and will lead to program cuts, which in turn can continue to push enrollment numbers down as students leave and go elsewhere, including out of state.
"We had six different years where we had no increases in salary," said Jeffrey Ogbar, the president of UConn's professors' union. "You start to have salary compression as we recruit new faculty members that we've struggled to bring in."
Ogbar said not offering competitive packages to new professors will inevitably impact the quality of education at UConn.
"I think this is a critical point for UConn's competitive nature," Ogbar said, adding that in the '90s, UConn became a top 30 public school because of its ability to hire top academicians. After additional state funding, UConn continued to climb into the top 20.
"That speaks to how important it is to recruit and remain competitive in higher education," Ogbar said. "When you think about hiring a world-class chemist, or world-class geneticist or a world-class whatever that academic field is, these people aren't interchangeable."
According to UConn's student newspaper The Daily Campus, President Radenka Maric threatened to stop playing UConn sports at Hartford's XL Center if the proposed higher education budget goes through.
Officials from the Board of Regents for Higher Education — which oversees the state universities and community colleges — didn’t comment immediately after Lamont released his budget at noon on Wednesday.
Leaders of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee also didn’t temper their concerns.
Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, said the governor failed to prioritize a vital cog in the state’s economic engine.
"We have this way of segmenting education in Connecticut. We talk about early childhood, in incremental ways, we talk about the K-12 system, but we don't equitably talk about the higher education system," Walker said.
"If we take education seriously for all, and if we provide an equal continuum all the way up until we get advanced degrees, that's the only way we're going to really bring equality into this state."
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the Appropriations Committee’s other co-chair, said higher education has to come up with a plan to be fiscally sustainable, but the state also must keep a close watch on enrollment.
"There's work to be done to make sure that [enrollment] numbers are where they should be," Osten said.
Tapping reserves and a tricky new system for funding fringe benefits
The Lamont administration suggested that state colleges and universities should tap their fiscal reserves if necessary to adjust to fiscal life without federal pandemic aid.
According to the governor’s budget, UConn has $374 million in unrestricted funds while the regional universities and community colleges collectively have $308 million.
The administration insists it’s also helping higher education by changing how Connecticut pays for the fringe benefits — and particularly the retirement benefits — of college and university employees. But it’s uncertain how much this actually helps.
Currently, the state comptroller’s office covers all benefit costs but only for some higher education employees. This often depends upon whether the position is paid for through the state budget’s operating grant or whether the university funds the position tuition and fee revenues.
And given state government’s high pension debt, the funds an agency — or higher education unit — must contribute to the pension fund on a per-employee basis can be considerable.
Lamont wants to change that so the state will cover a portion of the fringe benefit costs for all higher education employees. And to ensure higher education units don’t lose funds, Lamont has proposed adding $120 million over the next two years to UConn’s operating grant and $80 million for the regional state universities and community colleges.
But that also means that a significant chunk of the proposed operating grants won’t be available to cover any other operating expenses.