State pays price for lim­it­ing higher-ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing

The News-Times - - OPINION - By Matt Fleury Matt Fleury is the chair of the Board of Re­gents for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Con­necti­cut Sci­ence Cen­ter.

Ear­lier this year, the Fed­eral Re­serve Bank of Bos­ton re­leased a re­port that did not get a lot of press, but is cer­tainly wor­thy of at­ten­tion. The pa­per, en­ti­tled “Con­se­quences of State Dis­in­vest­ment in Pub­lic Higher Ed­u­ca­tion: Lessons for the New Eng­land States,” ar­tic­u­lated what those of us in­volved in higher ed­u­ca­tion know to be true: that fund­ing for pub­lic colleges and uni­ver­si­ties has dropped dras­ti­cally in the past decade, and that our stu­dents, and our econ­omy in the long-term, are pay­ing the price.

In Con­necti­cut, state in­vest­ment in our pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing dropped by 12.8 per­cent be­tween 2008 and 2017 on a per-stu­dent ba­sis. The re­port notes that these cut­backs have a dis­pro­por­tion­ately neg­a­tive im­pact on the abil­ity of our com­mu­nity colleges — which serve first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents, people of color and stu­dents of non­tra­di­tional ages — to pro­vide a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion at an af­ford­able cost.

Con­necti­cut is by no means alone in these cut­backs. Ev­ery other New Eng­land state ex­cept Maine cut per-stu­dent spend­ing by more than 10 per­cent. But we are left to grap­ple with the con­se­quences. It is no co­in­ci­dence that at the same time we have wit­nessed sig­nif­i­cant cuts in state fund­ing, our com­mu­nity colleges have moved closer and closer to fi­nan­cial peril and stu­dent tu­ition has gone up.

Our elected lead­ers face un­en­vi­able choices as they de­bate the fi­nal bi­en­nial bud­get. Both so­ci­etal and fis­cal costs of dis­in­vest­ment in pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion over time are high on the list.

The sit­u­a­tion at our com­mu­nity colleges is dire. This year alone, de­spite a 2 per­cent tu­ition in­crease, our colleges face a com­bined short­fall of more than $30 mil­lion. At the same time, the colleges’ re­serve funds con­tinue to dwin­dle. With­out find­ing new so­lu­tions or in­creas­ing the state’s in­vest­ment, our com­mu­nity colleges are on a path to wipe out their re­serves over the next sev­eral years, leav­ing at least some of them es­sen­tially in­sol­vent. Those of us who have a com­mu­nity col­lege to thank for our op­por­tu­ni­ties in life are not the only ones who know we can­not al­low this to hap­pen.

As the gov­ern­ing body for our state’s pub­lic colleges and uni­ver­si­ties, the Board of Re­gents is do­ing our part to pro­mote fis­cal sta­bil­ity while at the same time im­prov­ing stu­dent out­comes. We are mov­ing for­ward with the Stu­dents First plan to con­sol­i­date our com­mu­nity colleges into a singly ac­cred­ited in­sti­tu­tion. The plan saves sig­nif­i­cant money — es­ti­mated at $23 mil­lion per year — by con­sol­i­dat­ing some ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions and re­duc­ing re­dun­dan­cies at the man­age­rial level. Stu­dents First is a nec­es­sary part of a strat­egy to pro­tect our cur­rent com­mu­nity col­lege cam­puses and satel­lites and the ser­vices they pro­vide. The plan calls for zero aca­demic cuts — be­cause we pri­or­i­tize teach­ing and learn­ing at ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tions and af­ford­able prices.

Even if pub­lic fund­ing were not de­clin­ing, re­think­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­tures and how best to re­spond to stu­dent, em­ployer and com­mu­nity needs would be the right things to do. While we can and must change our cur­rent ways of op­er­at­ing, the re­al­ity is that more fund­ing is also needed to pro­vide a se­cure fu­ture.

Ev­ery mem­ber of the Board of Re­gents be­lieves in the prin­ci­pled and im­por­tant moral and so­cial ar­gu­ments for ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing. But even if one is to ac­cede to the purely fi­nan­cial as­pects of the de­bate that tend to pre­vail dur­ing times of eco­nomic worry, the case for our pub­lic colleges and uni­ver­si­ties is crys­tal clear.

Con­necti­cut’s top em­ploy­ers are de­pend­ing on the work­force pre­pared by our colleges and uni­ver­si­ties. The Bos­ton Fed re­port finds that higher stu­dent debt hin­ders col­lege com­ple­tion, im­pairs work­force readi­ness, in­creases the de­fault rate and re­duces home own­er­ship. Em­ploy­ers worry about tax pol­icy, but they worry just as much about tal­ent when they de­cide where to do busi­ness. We do not want to be the state that let tens of thou­sands of new man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs go empty be­cause of a lack of in­vest­ment in the readi­ness of our cit­i­zens to fill them.

This sounds like a dra­matic sce­nario, but it isn’t. Pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions serve half of the stu­dents who go to col­lege in our re­gion, and com­mu­nity colleges in par­tic­u­lar are the un­ri­valed op­tion for un­der­rep­re­sented, low-in­come and older stu­dents re­tool­ing for to­day’s jobs.

The Con­necti­cut Board of Re­gents for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion is re­spect­ful of the larger chal­lenges fac­ing govern­ment. We are pas­sion­ate, earnest and un­wa­ver­ing in our ad­vo­cacy for in­creased fund­ing for all these rea­sons. At the same time, we will not bet the fu­tures of our stu­dents, fac­ulty and staff, and in­sti­tu­tions ex­clu­sively on the prospects of more fund­ing.

Re­sources may be de­clin­ing, but we will make best use of those we have by fo­cus­ing them on the val­ued cam­puses in com­mu­ni­ties around our state, and the qual­ity and af­ford­abil­ity of the ser­vices they pro­vide our cit­i­zens. While there will al­ways be dis­agree­ments about ap­proach, the Board of Re­gents will de­fend these ideals with the re­sources we have.

The Fed­eral Re­serve re­port, how­ever, makes painfully clear the lim­i­ta­tions of our con­di­tion and the risks at hand. If, as a state, we do not turn a cor­ner and be­gin to in­crease our in­vest­ment in pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion over a sus­tained pe­riod, we risk fur­ther marginal­iz­ing eco­nom­i­cally chal­lenged seg­ments of our so­ci­ety, driv­ing fur­ther re­liance on pub­lic sub­sis­tence, and starv­ing in­dus­try of des­per­ately needed tal­ent.

On the other hand, if we buck the na­tional trend and in­vest in our pub­lic colleges and uni­ver­si­ties, the po­ten­tial of our econ­omy, and the work­force that is our com­mu­nity, is lim­it­less.

We do not want to be the state that let tens of thou­sands of new man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs go empty be­cause of a lack of in­vest­ment.

Brian A. Pounds / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

The quad­ran­gle area at Housatonic Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Bridgeport.

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