The crucial role of Connecticut’s community colleges and why we must sustain them

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The courtyard at Manchester Community College.

Ever proud of my heritage as a community college student, I have never reflected more deeply on the value of these institutions than over the recent years during which I have served on the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education. The Board, comprised of volunteers from many backgrounds, serves at a time when Connecticut’s 12 community colleges struggle to maintain services and affordability amid sharply reduced state funding and flat or declining population and enrollment. Previously, as chair of the Regents’ Finance Committee, I witnessed the recurring mantra of very good college administrators trying to make budgets work within a broader organizational structure that itself was becoming unsustainable.

At the same time, Connecticut is on the doorstep of an exciting burst in hiring in advanced manufacturing, health sciences and technology, which promises to secure key employers and provide excellent career opportunities for thousands of people. Among the greatest risks to realizing the economic potential of these jobs is the readiness of our workforce. Our community colleges are educating impressive numbers of well-prepared candidates for these jobs. We must do more. But we are constrained by budgets.

Ultimately, nothing short of sustained and increased investment will enable these critical institutions, which I believe are often under-valued and under-supported, to achieve their potential. And this increased investment will return extraordinary benefits, as our colleges dramatically elevate the earning power of those we serve and the output of our employers. For many students, these schools are the only ladder to the middle class and a better future. For many employers, they are an essential source for talent.

Under current circumstances, it’s clear that expecting dramatically increased taxpayer investment is not by itself a reliable strategy. And so, the Board of Regents and management team, working with representatives from across the college system, have developed a plan to significantly reduce the cost of administering the 12 colleges, while supporting services that students need.

On balance, it is untenable to steward $1.2 billion in taxpayer investment at this moment in Connecticut without earnestly evaluating whether we are deriving the best possible value for that investment in our operations, and in our results. We must do better than cutting library hours and under-staffing student advisors. Rather, we have challenged ourselves to minimize the cost of management.

The estimated savings of our plan is $28 million per year, roughly 2.3 percent of the cost of the system. The plan does not reduce faculty, and should enable us to increase needed student-facing services that are woefully lacking at present.

As a student who found a 45-minute commute to be nearly prohibitive in my long-ago community college days, closing local campuses is not an attractive option when an administrative reorganization is possible. Nor would such closings derive savings as a result of a no-layoff provision in the state’s contract with 96 percent of our employees. Tuition, the alternative to traditional taxpayer revenue, must be part of the mix, but increases on the scale needed to close projected deficits will only reduce access for those who need it most.

Government institutions, and academia itself, are inherently resistant to change. We respect the most important reasons for this. But we cannot fail to act where we have a clear means of helping to assure the future of these mission-critical colleges and the students, employers and communities they serve.

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


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