One statewide community college: A bargain we can’t afford

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The state’s Board of Regents Dec. 14 will vote on a restructuring recommendation by Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian to fold the state’s 12 community colleges into one. The recommendation, which has been opposed by the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges and other organizations, purports to save some $28 million by eliminating duplication of services within the system … while, as a BOR slogan says, putting “Students First.” In reality, the plan places finances first and students as also-rans. For this reason, we at the 4Cs encourage BOR members to reject the recommended proposal.

Loss of grants

While the plan offers pie-in-the-sky, hoped-for savings, it overlooks some serious possible financial losses and student hardships. One significant drawback is the possible loss of grants. As community colleges fade out of existence, federal and state grants could well fade out with them.

An example is federal Hispanic-serving Institution (HSI) grants made available to colleges having a full-time student population that’s at least 25 percent Hispanic. Available grants can help expand educational opportunities for Hispanic students and enable HSIs to strengthen their academic offerings, program quality, and institutional stability.

Currently, three community colleges have become Hispanic-serving Institutions, while another four are approaching HSI status with their growing Hispanic student populations. The impact of consolidation on these and other grant programs is far too important to address after the fact.

Loss of fundraisers

Another casualty of consolidation could be the community college foundations that have been created to raise funds to benefit students at the individual community colleges. Governed by groups of business and community leaders, these groups raise funds to help students beyond what’s available through Pell grants and other forms of aid. These decisions are based solely on local community and business needs. Often, this support is all that stands between the success or failure of students. For this reason, the continued effectiveness of community college foundations should be a going-in requirement of any consolidation plan. We don’t see that here.

Loss of educational opportunities

One highly touted feature of the consolidation is the elimination of course duplication at various colleges. Rather than offer the same courses at two or more neighboring colleges, the consolidated community college could “double up” on the low-enrollment courses, offering them at one campus location, and allowing students at other campuses seamless access to these courses.

This scenario overlooks one important fact about the community college population in Connecticut, especially in urban areas. Many of these students rely heavily on public transportation to get to and from their local colleges. A short bus trip across town may work for some of the state’s students, but, for others, finding buses or trains to other colleges in other towns can be another matter.

Granted, a student from Bridgeport could walk to the railroad station, catch a train to New Haven and walk to Gateway Community College or vice versa. But can a student from Manchester get to Middletown this easily? Or to Hartford? Or Farmington? Can a student from Norwich get to Danielson this easily? Can a student from Winsted get to Waterbury or Enfield this easily?

The same problem confronts working adults, who traditionally have made up a large part of the community college population. Some 19,370, or 38 percent of the community colleges’ 50,548 students are age 25 and older. These include high school graduates who want a college degree to pursue career opportunities that will give them a ladder into the middle class, and people whose jobs were eliminated and are returning to college to prepare for a new career.

Many of these people can make it from their workplace to a college across town in time for a class, but getting to college in another city is another matter. These two categories of students are among those for whom the community college system was created. It would defeat the purpose to deprive them of the education they need to improve their lot in life just to save a few dollars.

Whether the consolidation plan’s much touted benefits to students will materialize is an open question. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the United States’ regional accreditation association, has already raised this issue. In an August letter to Ojakian, NEASC Chairman David P. Angel, remarked that, although “the materials submitted to date have been very clear on the financial reasons for the proposed change,” they have been “less clear on a rationale tied more directly to the mission of the colleges. [We] seek further information about how this will be accomplished through the proposed merger.”

The false bargain

All-in-all, we’re being presented with a cost-cutting plan in a warm fuzzy educational-improvement wrapper that raises more questions than it answers. Since the future of our educational system, and more importantly our students, hangs in the balance, we urge the Board of Regents to reject this recommended restructuring. Unless this is done, the state’s residents, business community and students will be saddled with a bargain they can’t afford.

 William Foster III is a Professor of English at Naugatuck Valley Community College and is Diversity Officer of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges. The Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges (4Cs)  represents some 4,000 faculty and professional staff at community and private four-year colleges and universities. It is known for its Culture of Commitment to the students its members serve.

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