Connecticut college system cuts costs amid dropping enrollment revenue
Officials in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities’ system are planning cost-cutting measures in the upcoming year to combat revenue losses from declining enrollment.
The moves — which include cutting programs and not filling positions following retirements — are controversial among some faculty members, many of whom think the way to improve enrollment isn’t through cuts but through bolstering programming and services for students. The problems within the system’s finances, they argue, start with a lack of state support.
“Faculty have experienced the impact of it [cost-cutting measures], and so have the students,” said Brendan Cunningham, an economics professor at Eastern Connecticut State University.
The state’s public higher education system, which has a budget of about $1.5 billion, has been mired in financial woes for years, notably at Western Connecticut State University where President John Clark recently stepped down following a vote of no confidence from the faculty senate earlier this year.
“We need to be more efficient and effective in the way we allocate resources that are commensurate with outcomes, impact, and ultimately student success,” CSCU spokesman Leigh Appleby said in an email. “We are simply not where we want to be right now, and major change is needed if we hope to not only survive, but ultimately thrive.”
Appleby cited several improvements to programs and grants, including the implementation of the Guided Pathway program which he said officials expect to have a “dramatic impact on student retention and enrollment.” Guided Pathway aims to streamline students’ paths through college.
With the exception of Charter Oak State College, all system schools project a balanced budget for fiscal year 2023. Charter Oak is expecting a loss of $1.2 million because of some one-time program start-up costs and the timing of the SEBAC agreement payments, according to a June presentation to the Board of Regents.
A part of that balanced budget came from about $300 million in one-time American Rescue Plan Act funding from the state that covered an additional payroll period, which cost about $18.4 million. Central State Connecticut University, for example, would have had a deficit of just over $1 million without the one-time funding.
The Board of Regents increased fiscal year 2022-23 tuition and mandatory fees for full-time community college students who pay out of pocket by $112 per semester and for state universities and Charter Oak students by $291 per semester.
The system has predicted a more than $250 million budget shortfall from fiscal year 2022 to fiscal year 2023 because of employee raises, fringe benefits, an additional payroll period and a decrease in enrollment because of COVID-19, according to CSCU.
The system is also undergoing a merger of its 12 community colleges into one, which will move hundreds of employees into new positions, titles and organizations.
A 2021 report attributed the “weakened” performance of the state system from 2016 to 2019 to a decline in revenue from state appropriations and certain non-academic services, such as student housing and dining, combined with increases in non-personnel costs.
The report, developed by two professors for the American Association of University Professors, examined data from 2013 to 2020. The last year saw declines in revenue partly due to the pandemic.
“Overall, despite the decline in performance, the CSCU System has sufficient reserves to bridge any losses from the pandemic,” the report said. “The long-term decline in enrollment is concerning, but can mostly be managed through attrition of personnel.”
At its last meeting, the Board of Regents passed a spending plan that includes cost-cutting measures. Among those measures are program cuts and reductions.
For example, in June, the board approved the discontinuation of the Gerontology certificate program at Central Connecticut State University.
While not all programs need to earn money, university officials are considering their solvency under the latest spending plan, said Ben Barnes, CSCU’s chief financial officer.
“There are some programs that we would like to review and get out of because they are chronically under-enrolled and don’t seem to be meeting the needs of our students now,” Barnes said in a recent interview. “We are interested in offering programs that are attractive to students and helping them meet their educational goals. If that’s not the case, we need to change those programs or get out of them.”
Cunningham said the system is “putting the cart in front of the horse” with this method. He said much of the revenue loss has been attributed to dropping enrollment, but that the subsequent program slashing may lead to a further loss in enrollment.
It’s also lead to an increased workload for some faculty, he said.
He thinks the state should invest more into higher education. The percentage of system revenue that comes from the state declined by several percentage points from 1987 to 2020, Cunningham said.
“We are not offering them [students] what we used to,” he added.
Some schools in the system cost-cutting plan are opting to capitalize on a wave of retirements by not filling the empty positions to save money. System-wide, there have been close to 730 retirements of full-time employees in fiscal year 2022, about 14% of total full-time positions.
“We’re obviously refilling a number of positions,” Barnes said. “But some of the campuses have indicated that they are looking for ways to capture that attrition as permanent savings.”
Rotua Lumbantobing, an associate professor of economics and president of the Western Connecticut State University chapter of the American Association of University Presidents, said the decision not to refill positions is hurting staff morale.
Morale took another hit when a report regarding Western’s finances was published, she added.
“Faculty and staff are very often, very upset,” Lumbantobing said. “They don’t trust the administration anymore.”
‘Serious financial difficulty’ at Western
The January report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems said that Western is in “serious financial difficulty,” and that it had dipped into its reserves almost every year for the past decade. The report, which faculty take issue with, notes declining enrollment and high expenditures, particularly on personnel.
“The time to deal with the University’s fiscal problems is now, not just because WCSU has depleted its reserves, but because the demographic trends in Connecticut and the Northeast U.S. more generally are not favorable,” the report reads. “Postponing action means that the problem that must be addressed will be even larger than it is now.”
Lumbantobing said faculty take issue with the findings of the report. Enrollment has been dropping across the board, not just at Western, she said.
She said auditors should have interviewed more people — particularly faculty and staff — and questioned the methods used to create the report. She wants to see more transparency from the administration about which data was used to create the report, she added.
And financial troubles can be traced back to administrative decisions as well as a lack of state support, she said.
“The bottom line is the state needs to support us, to support Connecticut State University. And, the second is that bad decisions have been made. That is not just the local administrators. Yes, it’s true that of course they have made a lot of bad decisions and that put us in this dire situation. But they also had the backing of the system office.”
The WCSU Senate in May took a vote of no confidence in then-president John Clark following a retreat meant to address some of the financial issues. Clark officially stepped down as president July 14.
“Since assuming the role of WCSU president in 2015, Dr. Clark has demonstrated his commitment to public higher education,” CSCU President Terrence Cheng wrote in a message to the university community.
The idea that poor management is the root of problems at Western isn’t consistent with the NCHEMS report, Appleby said.
“However, from a system-wide perspective, we do have to change if we are going to adapt to the needs of the 21st century and provide the kind of educational experience that traditional and nontraditional students are seeking, especially as they continue to seek fulfilling gainful careers with Connecticut companies and industries,” Appleby said in an emailed statement Monday.