The true crisis in Connecticut higher education

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The campus of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

I recently had the honor of speaking at an event to support the Student Crisis Fund at Charter Oak State College, my alma mater. This is a fund that helps students – and their education – survive unexpected financial challenges, from broken computers to dental emergencies. For many students, these $100 – $1,000 problems can stop an academic career dead in its tracks. And yet, colleges and universities – ours included – raise tuition and fees by easily the amount of the average withdrawal from the Student Crisis Fund. For too many students, these increases themselves create a widespread financial crisis every year.

For America’s workforce to remain competitive, The Lumina Foundation estimates that 60 percent of Americans will need a college degree or certificate by 2025. At the same time, the proportion of Americans who don’t have to worry about college expenses is shrinking, while their numbers are replaced by more diverse, less wealthy students. Our poorest students graduate at a rate of 20 percent nationally. For them, a degree costs more than an annual household income, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s after they get financial aid.

If our nation relies on a higher graduation rate and those with the lowest rate are the poorest, this problem will never be solved by higher-end colleges and universities. Affordable, public higher education is the only answer.

Here, this means the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system must sustain the quality education it provides at prices students can afford. The system, comprising 12 community colleges, four state universities and Charter Oak State College, is primarily paid for by student tuition and fees (52 percent) and state funding (48 percent). The combination of less state money and rising operating expenses is an easy math problem with a difficult result: Either costs must be reduced, or students must pay more.

The Board of Regents for Higher Education, situated between students, faculty and staff and elected officials, will no longer make tuition and fee increases the default response. Recognizing the extremely difficult challenges confronting government, we nevertheless advocate vigorously that Connecticut continue to be a state that prioritizes public higher education as a strategy for the future of citizens, our employers and the state itself.

We must also take decisive measures to control and reduce our own expenses. Appropriate labor terms negotiated at the state level are crucial to our ability to manage the system in the interests of students. And our administrative structure must be as efficient as possible. The “Students First” strategy will prioritize spending on teaching and student services by reducing back-office, management and overhead costs. Voices and insights from across the Connecticut State College and University campuses are being enlisted to enable us to design these changes in the best possible ways, as we balance the need for deliberation with the imperative of rapidly changing financial circumstances.

The true crisis in higher education is not the need for new organizational models, or advancing change in a field rooted in laudable traditions. Nor is it the negotiation of compensation and work rules that are considerate of the world as it is today. Our true crisis is the risk that even public higher education – the last and greatest opportunity for an increasing proportion of college-going people –  may soon elude their financial grasp. The true crisis is the need for emergency funds and food pantries for students on our college campuses. The true crisis is that more of our residents may be unable to enrich their lives through higher education and that our state may not have the educated workforce we need to drive our economy.

If we were ever daunted by this challenge, members of the Board of Regents are even more deeply affirmed in this endeavor by the 17 commencement exercises we collectively attended this spring. We saw the potential, intellect, grit and pride in the eyes of thousands of students as they received their diplomas from these essential institutions of higher learning. Their potential is our cause.

Matt Fleury, of Hartford, is Chairman of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education and President & CEO of the Connecticut Science Center.

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