Dismantling access to Connecticut’s higher education

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I woke up recently to the headline that the governor of Nevada had signed into law the Nevada Promise Scholarship which would provide tuition-free community college to eligible students. Thus Nevada joins Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee in providing increased access to higher education for low income students through a robust community college system.

Connecticut has taken the opposite route. Instead of looking at ways to increase access, the solution that is being proposed is dismantling the community college system by centralizing and creating a hierarchy with one president overseeing 12 colleges.

This centralization goes against the mission of these colleges.

Community colleges exist to serve their surrounding communities. Their mission is to be responsive to community needs, to those who live in their proximity, to prepare the workforce for the businesses and industries in their service area. Community is part of their names because it encompasses that important role.

They also need to be nimble and offer certificates and other programs, including associate degrees, to meet the changing needs of industry and business.

It is usual for community colleges to eliminate five programs in a calendar year and add another five. They are adaptive institutions that understand how best to respond to demographic changes and the students they serve, many of them adult students and first generation.

In times of economic downturn, many adult students who may have a degree from a university go to the community colleges to get retrained in a profession that has more demand. That happened recently in Connecticut when the enrollment at the 12 community colleges increased during the last recession because of demand for job specific education in higher job opportunity areas.

Again, in addition to preparing students to transfer to a university, community colleges provide the preparation for the workforce of the state because these students stay in Connecticut.

We know that statewide enrollment at the public school system is declining, yet the percentage of students from racial and ethnic minorities has risen to around 45 percent and for low income students to 32 percent. According to the State Department of Education, “Connecticut’s student body is composed of more low-income students than ever before.” These are precisely the students that are welcome and attend the 12 community colleges in the state.

To create barriers and structural changes that will limit their access to higher education through a community college is to prevent them from becoming productive citizens who can then contribute to the wealth of the state.

We are all in agreement that cost has to be addressed in the current challenging economic situation the state is facing. But cost needs to be considered in terms of results and effectiveness. Cost also needs to be evaluated in terms of return of investment.

In this case, how does Connecticut educate and provide access to higher education to a diverse, low income population that will play a critical role in the future well-being of the state? By a disruptive reorganization or by identifying in depth cost-effective measures and best practices from other states and systems?

A recent analysis published by The Chronicle of Higher Education on the consolidation and mergers done in Georgia warns of unexpected lessons and provides caution, including the “most surprising – and possible unwelcome – lesson that mergers may not actually save much money.”

After six years of consolidation, although some redundant positions were eliminated, the system discovered mergers needed additional positions to support the new organization and meet accreditation expectations. The article states that “there are costs that come along with a merger that are maybe not foreseen with great clarity.”

System offices of colleges and universities have as their principal responsibility establishing policy and monitoring implementation. They also provide specialized services such as legal support and advocacy. But because they are not in the trenches dealing with the teaching and learning process, including faculty and students, their strength is not in the operational side. System offices are at the top of a hierarchy that by nature is more effective working with its board to enact policy, monitoring progress toward system goals, and dealing with the legislature.

Being removed from direct service to students often lessens the importance of being responsive to their needs. A hierarchy that stands between those in the line of duty with direct contact with students and those at a system level does not increase student effectiveness or outcomes. To think that centralization is a solution is to ignore the nature of what a community college is as well as the important functions of a system office.

It does not mean that the status quo should prevail and the colleges and universities should not seek ways of creating efficiencies. But that opportunity should be based not on one-size-fits-all approach, but on the nature of the function, the quality and the opportunity to find a better approach.

Community colleges in Connecticut should work with their university partners to identify programmatic opportunities for efficiencies. One example is the Transfer and Articulation Pathway that provides a two-plus-two approach to getting a four-year degree, thus providing students who begin at a community college a pathway to a four- year degree at a lower cost and streamlining the curriculum in a meaningful way.

Other areas can be approached with the same perspective. What efficiencies, for example, can be accomplished by having a regional strategy between, Southern Connecticut State University and Gateway and Housatonic Community Colleges for shared services? What best practices and proven approaches exists that can be adapted to Connecticut?

There are multiple examples across the nation of initiatives that yield results and are cost saving. But they are built not on reorganization for its sake, but on understanding the support structures needed to offer students a good education as required by accrediting agencies and good practices.

We know the architectural principle of “form follows function” which also applies to organization structures. What is being discussed does not support the function of the community colleges; on the contrary it dismantles it. A reorganization that undermines the mission of the community colleges and ignores their function will not enhance access and student success.

Our state deserves a well prepared citizenry that can contribute to its economy in multiple ways, that values our democratic processes, and that will be capable of creating wealth and a better future for all. Through greater collaboration and partnerships, community colleges and our four state universities can accomplish this goal.

Estela Lopez, PhD., is the former Provost of the Connecticut State College and Universities system and the former Vice Chancellor of the Connecticut State University System.

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