CT legislature undermining the future of its higher education system

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Eastern Connecticut State University was the recipient of some good news recently. Or I should say the university’s future students were. Gov. Dannel Malloy announced last week that TheDream.US, the largest privately funded national scholarship program, will be dispersing hundreds of scholarships to undocumented immigrant students to attend ECSU.

Bravo! No matter where hard-working students happen to be born, they deserve the right to quality higher education.

But while Gov. Malloy can applaud the disbursement of hundreds of thousands of dollars in private scholarships, he falls flat when it comes to supporting those very institutions poised to make the biggest impact on our state’s young people and their ability to succeed. In Connecticut and throughout the nation, public higher education is being systematically defunded, which places the current high-quality education students receive at our Connecticut State Universities in jeopardy.

Since the Great Recession, funding for higher education has failed to rebound to pre-recession levels.  State support went from just over 61 percent in 2006 to just under 52 percent in 2015.   Meanwhile, tuition keeps going up. Students in Connecticut now cover on average half the costs of their higher education through tuition alone. These constant tuition increases put college out of reach for many students.

The CSU system, which includes ECSU, CCSU, SCSU, and WCSU, is already in starvation mode: employing above the national average of part-time professors; limiting library and lab hours; offering more online instruction that deprives students of the mentorship and guidance they could gain from face-to-face interaction with professors.

Curbing waste and top-heavy management is understandable. But the deep cuts we are seeing to what make up the heart and soul of public higher education will only harm the very students these institutions seek to serve. At a time when we should be strengthening colleges and universities to ensure a ready and capable Connecticut workforce, there is a concerning lack of long-term thinking. Lawmakers need to reconsider support for public higher education as a sound investment in our state’s future.

A well-educated population and work force is highly cost effective and the benefits of higher education go beyond receiving a degree or landing a job. Research shows that higher education leads to 134 percent higher annual earnings, lower rates of poverty and crime, as well as lower rates of disability or being in jail.

And while some chalk it up to a “new economic reality” with austerity measures, deep budget cuts and greater corporate tax deals as the only answer, the actual reality is that Connecticut is the richest state in the union based on per capita income.  Low-to-middle income earners in our state, making less than $76,000 a year, pay double the tax rates when compared to those making more than $1.3 million a year. In terms of income inequality, Connecticut is at the top of the scale.

This means the working and middle classes are subsidizing the wealthiest of our citizens – those who need the least help. Meanwhile, public universities are being undermined because equitable tax policies are somehow taboo.

CSU students come to college to improve their lives and the lives of their families. They are largely first-generation college students; many represent ethnic and racial minorities. These new scholarships at ECSU are sure to be life-changing and hopefully dream-achieving for many of them. But as we attract new students to our institutions, we must — as a state — do everything we can to ensure our CSUs are well supported and able to continue to offer the same stellar education that students have received in years past. If we fail in that, we not only do a disservice to our students, but also to the future of our state.

John O’Connor is a sociology professor at Central Connecticut State University.

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