Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, one of the four universities in the Board of Regents system. Connecticut Public Radio

Connecticut’s regional university and college system could eliminate more than 3,500 full and part-time jobs — including 654 layoffs — while boosting student tuition and fees by as much as $1,000 by 2025, based on funding in the latest state budget proposal.

And while higher education faces “devastation” — as one legislator described it — under the budget recommended by the Appropriations Committee, that’s still the most favorable budget scenario on the table to date. Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan for regional state universities, community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College for the next two fiscal years is $82.5 million leaner.

The budget the Appropriations Committee endorsed for 2023-24 and 2024-25 falls $109 million short of the cost needed to maintain current services in the first fiscal year and $225 million below in the second.

In rough numbers, those represent gaps of 10% and 20%, respectively.

“We are really at a crossroads, whether we have a quality public higher education system or not,” said Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, co-chairman of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

“We absolutely have to find some way to put more [resources] in,” said Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, whose district includes Eastern Connecticut State University and Quinebaug Valley Community College. Otherwise, she added, the “devastation” the merged system is facing “is just the beginning.”

Haddad and Flexer were responding to a deficit mitigation option prepared for the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees the merged Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system. The board won’t act on any plan until after the next state budget has been approved.

CSCU President Terrence Cheng, who directed system budget staff to prepare the options, is scheduled to outline them at 10 a.m. Monday in the Legislative Office Building.

“The real harm that would come from this, that is most problematic, is the harm that would come to students,” Ben Barnes, the system’s chief financial officer, said Monday. 

Many class sections undoubtedly would be eliminated, while those that remain would become larger. Shrinking course offerings could complicate students’ efforts to graduate on time.

Barnes said no deficit mitigation plans currently involve closing campuses or colleges. But when pressed, he added that could not be ruled out. “It is a legitimate concern.”

The system administration’s mitigation plan includes laying off 13% of all full-time staff, or 654 over the biennial cycle — including 196 faculty. Job cuts also would affect buildings and ground, public safety, clerical services, administration, financial aid staff and athletics.

But while nearly one-third of the full-time layoffs involve faculty, the classroom impact would be much larger.

Barnes said the plan includes eliminating 2,916 or four out of every 10 part-time positions. And close to 70% of the system’s part-time workforce involves lecturers, other adjunct faculty, tutors and other academic support services, he added.

The regents already have approved a 3% hike in tuition and fees for state university students for the 2023-24 academic year. The deficit mitigation plan under review retains that increase and adds a 5% hike in 2024-25.

Under this scenario, students would be paying, on average, $13,405 per year, which is $1,005 higher than the current average.

The mitigation plan also calls for 5% tuition and fees hikes for community college students in each of the next two fiscal years. This would push the per-student average to $5,182 by 2024-25, which is $482 higher than the current level.

Inflation, worker raises and spending cap combined to squeeze university budgets

Finances for the state universities and community colleges — as well as those for the University of Connecticut and its Farmington-based medical and dental schools — are coming to a head this year for several reasons.

UConn, which is not part of the CSCU system, has not released a formal deficit mitigation plan since the budget proposals were released, but officials have warned it could face staffing cuts as well.

Lamont and the General Assembly chose to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief into the higher education system since 2020. But much of that aid has been used to support staffing and other ongoing expenses.

And while the Lamont administration insists universities and colleges should have done a better job preparing for this temporary funding to end — and also note that overall enrollment has declined — Haddad and others say it isn’t that simple.

When the pandemic weakened enrollment, it also cut into university revenues from housing and other student fees.

Legislators always understood extra funding would be needed “for years to come,” Haddad said.

But the recent challenges were not limited to the pandemic.

The national inflation rate hit a 40-year high last summer, spent most of 2022 above 8% and currently stands at 5%, well above pre-pandemic levels.

Things also were complicated last spring when Lamont negotiated big pay increases for state employees as he campaigned for re-election.

Besides bonuses of $3,500 for most workers, the four-year $1.9 billion compensation package also awarded general wage hikes of 2.5% per year, as well as an annual step hike for all but the most senior workers. Step hikes typically add another 2 percentage points to most raises.

And the state budget lawmakers passed and Lamont signed last spring ordered public colleges and universities to pay those raises to most staff, not just those supported with block grants from the state budget. Public universities and colleges support a portion of their positions with tuition, fees and revenues other than direct appropriations from the state budget.

Further complicating matters is the state spending cap, which is designed to keep most of the budget in line with inflation and growth in statewide personal income.

Several members of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate say the cap isn’t permitting sufficient growth to address vital problems created or exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and by inflation.

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, and Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee, both said when their panel endorsed a biennial plan last week that it was severely constrained by the cap and that officials had to find solutions to counter it.

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, issued a statement one day following the committee’s budget vote echoing those same concerns.

Ritter and Looney specifically said lawmakers needed to find more funding for social services, education and child care.

But Lamont, a fiscal moderate, pushed back immediately, calling for adherence to the cap and saying lawmakers already have employed too many gimmicks in their proposals to date and are undermining the budget controls that have put state finances — in the short term — in excellent health in recent years.

The legislature can legally exceed the cap if the governor signs an emergency declaration and if the House and Senate both give a 60% vote of approval. That hasn’t happened, though, since 2007.

The governor and legislative leaders are expected to begin final negotiations in early May on a new biennial budget, with the goal of adopting a plan before the regular 2023 legislative session adjourns on June 7.

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.