Connecticut state college and university system officials are planning cost-cutting measures in the coming year to combat revenue losses from declining enrollment.
The measures – which include curtailing programs and leaving vacancies unfilled after retirements – are controversial among some faculty, many of whom believe the way to improve enrollment is not through cuts but strengthening student programs and services. According to them, the problems within the finances of the system begin with a lack of state support.
“Teachers have felt the impact [cost-cutting measures]so do students,” said Brendan Cunningham, professor of economics at Eastern Connecticut State University.
The state’s public higher education system, which has a budget of about $1.5 billion, has been mired in financial difficulties for years, including at Western Connecticut State University where President John Clark recently resigned following a vote of no confidence by the faculty senate earlier this year.
“We need to be more efficient and effective in how we allocate resources that are commensurate with outcomes, impact and ultimately student achievement,” CSCU spokesperson Leigh Appleby said in a statement. an email. “We’re just not where we want to be right now, and major change is needed if we hope to not just survive, but ultimately thrive.”
Appleby cited several improvements to programs and grants, including the implementation of the Guided Pathway program which he said is expected to have a “dramatic impact on student retention and enrollment.” Guided Pathway aims to streamline student pathways through college.
With the exception of Charter Oak State College, all schools in the system are forecasting a balanced budget for fiscal year 2023. Charter Oak expects a loss of $1.2 million due to some one-time program start-up costs and the payment schedule for the SEBAC agreement, according to a June presentation to the Board of Regents.
Part of this balanced budget came from approximately $300 million in one-time funding from the state’s American Rescue Plan Act which covered an additional pay period, which cost around $18.4 million. Central State Connecticut University, for example, would have had a shortfall of just over $1 million without the one-time funding.
The Board of Regents has increased tuition and compulsory fees for the 2022-2023 fiscal year for full-time community college students paying out of pocket by $112 per semester and for state universities and college students. Charter Oak from $291 per semester.
The system projected a budget shortfall of more than $250 million between fiscal year 2022 and fiscal year 2023 due to increases in staff, benefits, extra pay period, and decrease in registrations due to COVID-19, according to CSCU.
The system is also undergoing a merger of its 12 community colleges into one, which will move hundreds of employees to new positions, titles and organizations.
A 2021 report attributed the “weakened” performance of the state system from 2016 to 2019 to a decline in revenue from state appropriations and some non-university services, such as student housing and catering, combined with an increase non-personal costs.
The report, compiled by two professors for the American Association of University Teachers, looked at data from 2013 to 2020. Last year saw a drop in income partly due to the pandemic.
“Overall, despite the decline in performance, CSVSU System has sufficient reserves to offset losses due to the pandemic,” the report said. “The long-term decline in enrollment is concerning, but can primarily be managed through staff attrition.”
At its last meeting, the Board of Regents adopted a spending plan that includes cost-cutting measures. Among these measures are program cuts and reductions.
For example, in June the board approved the discontinuation of the gerontology certificate program at Central CT State University.
While not all programs need to make money, university officials are considering their solvency under the latest spending plan, said CSCU chief financial officer Ben Barnes.
“There are some programs that we would like to review and leave because they are chronically under-enrolled and don’t seem to meet the needs of our students now,” Barnes said in a recent interview. “We are interested in providing attractive programs for students and helping them achieve their educational goals. If not, we need to change these programs or withdraw from them.
Cunningham said the system “puts the cart before the horse” with this method. He said much of the lost revenue was attributed to declining enrollment, but the subsequent reduction in the program could lead to further loss of enrollment.
It also leads to an increased workload for some professors, he said.
He thinks the state should invest more in higher education. The percentage of system revenue coming from the state has declined by several percentage points from 1987 to 2020, Cunningham said.
“We don’t give them [students] what we were doing before,” he added.
Some schools in the system’s cost-cutting plan choose to capitalize on a wave of retirements by not filling vacancies to save money. System-wide, there were nearly 730 full-time employee retirements in fiscal year 2022, approximately 14% of total full-time positions.
“We are obviously in the process of filling a number of positions,” Barnes said. “But some campuses have indicated they are looking for ways to capture that attrition as permanent savings.”
Rotua Lumbantobing, associate professor of economics and president of the American Association of University Presidents chapter at Western Connecticut State University, said the decision not to fill the positions is hurting staff morale.
Morale took another hit when a report on Western’s finances was released, she added.
“Faculty and staff are very often, very upset,” Lumbantobing said. “They no longer trust the administration.
“Serious financial difficulties” at Western
The January report of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems said Western was in “severe financial difficulties” and had dipped into its reserves almost every year for the past decade. The report, which faculty dispute, notes declining enrollment and high spending, particularly on staff.
“The time has come to address the University’s fiscal issues, not only because WCSU has depleted its reserves, but because demographic trends in Connecticut and the Northeastern United States are no longer generally favorable” , says the report. “Postponing action means the problem to be solved will be even bigger than it is now.”
Lumbantobing said the professors disputed the report’s findings. Enrollments fell in all areas, not just Western, she said.
She says listeners should have interviewed more people — especially faculty and staff — and questioned the methods used to create the report. She wants to see more transparency from the administration about the data used to create the report, she added.
And The financial problems can be attributed to administrative decisions as well as a lack of state support, she said.
“The bottom line is that the state has to support us, to support Connecticut State University. And, the second is that bad decisions were made. It’s not just local administrators. Yes, it’s true that of course they made a lot of bad decisions and that put us in this dire situation. But they also had system office support.
The WCSU Senate in May took a vote of no confidence in then-president John Clark after a retirement intended to solve some of the financial problems. Clark officially resigned as president on July 14.
“Since assuming the role of WCSU President in 2015, Dr. Clark has demonstrated his commitment to public higher education,” CSCU President Terrence Cheng wrote in a message to the university community.
The idea that poor management is to blame for Western’s problems is not consistent with the NCHEMS report, Appleby said.
“However, from a system-wide perspective, we need to change if we are to adapt to the needs of the 21st century and provide the kind of educational experience that traditional and non-traditional students seek, especially since they continue to seek fulfilling experiences and lucrative careers in Connecticut businesses and industries,” Appleby said in a statement emailed Monday.