Even before the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities’ (CSCU) controversial plan to consolidate its 12 community colleges into one system was rejected by accrediting body the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) in a letter dated April 24, schools were busy trying to come up with new ways of creating revenue.
After all, they said, cuts in government aid are not likely to be reversed anytime soon.
“We know we all face the prospect of more budget cuts next year,” said Norwalk Community College (NCC) President David Levinson. “We’re hoping that they could come up with some additional appropriations for us, but we’re not assuming that.”
For fiscal year 2018, NCC is receiving nearly $13.8 million from the state — compared with $15.1 million in fiscal 2017. “And when it comes to basic operating revenues, including fringe benefit costs for our employees, the state is no longer subsidizing that,” Levinson noted.
All told, the 12 community colleges in the CSCU system, which also includes Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, recorded an operating loss of $454.3 million for the year ended June 30, 2017, compared with an operating loss of $412.3 million for the year ended June 30, 2016.
As a result, schools are looking to get creative when it comes to trying to cover their costs.
“We’re trying to be more active in applying for grants,” Levinson said. “So far this year we’ve received a $224,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for recruiting and retaining women in our engineering program, and last year we received $2.3 million from the Department of Education under its Title V program.”
Title V is designed to expand and enhance the academic offerings and program quality of colleges and universities educating Hispanic and low-income students. NCC’s Hispanic population has grown from 20 percent of the student body in Fall 2006 to 37 percent in Fall 2017.
Levinson also noted that outreach through its privately funded NCC Foundation is now raising more than $3 million a year for scholarships, professional development and student enrichment-programs.
He said the school also is looking to develop programs to fill job-market needs it detects, such as the Veterinary Technology Program it started a few years ago.
As for CSCU’s much-ballyhooed introduction last year of in-state tuition rates for residents of neighboring states — Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, depending on a given school’s geographic location — Levinson said it hasn’t had much impact so far.
“We’ve had 35-40 students come in from New York,” he said, “so it’s had a positive impact — just not a major one.”
Unlike NCC, Western Connecticut State University in Danbury — also a part of the CSCU system — has found success with the in-state tuition initiative, according to Director of University and Community Relations Paul Steinmetz.
“New York applications are up 21 percent year-over-year,” he said. “And applications in general are up 89 percent. A lot of it is coming from the Hudson Valley, as well as Putnam, Westchester and Dutchess Counties. In the past year we’ve gone from having 60 students who live in New York to 260.”
New Jersey has been slower, he said, but that was due primarily to WCSU’s just starting to make a push there.
“It’s a matter of having our admissions counselors (going) to the high schools and getting in front of the students,” Steinmetz said. “We’ll also probably be increasing our presence at college fairs and advertise more online to reach high school juniors and seniors and their parents.”
Another concern — for community colleges at least — is the rejection of the “Students First” consolidation plan put forth by CSCU President Mark Ojakian.
In a letter to Ojakian, David Angel, chair of the NEASC’s Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, wrote that the plan wasn’t “just a substantive change” but would create an entirely new college system that would require a thorough vetting process.
The NEASC also said the plan’s call for eliminating some 200 administrative positions and aligning curricula for more than 200 degree programs at the 12 community colleges was too tall an order to accomplish by 2019 as the CSCU proposed.
“Because of the magnitude of the proposed changes, the proposed timeline, and the limited investment in supporting the changes, the Commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment is too high to approve the proposed Community College of Connecticut as a candidate for accreditation based on this proposal,” Angel wrote.
Resubmitting the proposal to NEASC could take up to five years, Ojakian said. “The problems that our institutions and students face cannot wait five years,” he wrote to CSCU staff. “In five years, our institutions will be financially insolvent.”
The colleges could go ahead with the consolidation plan, but without NEASC approval they would not be able to present diplomas to graduating students.
Ojakian came up with “Students First” as a means of saving money; he estimated that consolidating the system would save nearly $28 million a year in administrative costs. Even if the plan had been approved, however, Ojakian maintained that the system would still face a $13.2 million deficit in the next fiscal year. The following two fiscal years would have been profitable if enrollment was strong, he projected.
“Students First was created to avert a major crisis for our institutions and our students,” Ojakian and Matt Fleury, chairman of the CSCU Board of Regents — which approved the plan 12-0 last December — wrote to CSCU staff. “Today, NEASC has issued a response to our Students First consolidation plan. It is not the decision that is best for our students, nor is it the decision for which we had hoped.
“This decision by NEASC is devastating to our ability to hold the line on tuition and keep all campuses open,” the letter continued. “In the face of an ongoing fiscal emergency, it forces us to consider options that we have strongly fought against because it will harm the 50,000 students who rely on their campuses and their campus communities.
“In the coming days we will review all of our options, including legislative and accrediting options, a review of tuition rates and the closing of one or more of our campuses,” the letter concluded.
Ojakian did not respond to Business Journal requests for further comment. But he has brought up the possibility of closing some campuses before — something that State Sen. Beth Bye (D-West Hartford) said was now a real possibility.
Calling the NEASC decision “extremely shortsighted and harmful,” Bye said the move “has put the Board of Regents and our community college students in an untenable position: completely close several college campuses, raise tuition rates substantially, demand tens of millions of dollars more every year from state government, or some combination of all of the above.
“For those who opposed the Board of Regents’ Students First proposal, this NEASC rejection may come as good news,” Bye continued, “but I would remind my colleagues that we still expect the Board of Regents to achieve a huge cost savings in its operating budget, and its options for doing so in a timely manner have been severely curtailed. The Board of Regents system is already suffering due to the legislature’s cuts — $61 million, or 17 percent less, since 2015.”
Levinson at NCC, who had supported the plan, said the NEASC decision “just underscores the financial challenges we have.”
He noted that significant staff reductions had already taken place at the school over the past few years. “At our peak we had 104 full-time faculty and today we have 87,” he said. “We used to have seven people in enrollment management and now we have four.”
As a result, Levinson said, “There’s been a lot of doubling up of duties. Our director of human resources (Therese Marrocco) is also our chief operating officer, so what had been two distinct jobs have been combined into one.”
He said he’d informed staff that more of the same is probably on the way.
“We need to continue to do the entrepreneurial things we’ve been doing,” Levinson said. “That means doing even more to attract grants, streamline our administrative processes, and to do what we can to be more effective while at the same time continuing to serve our students.”