State pays price for limiting higher-education funding
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.
The quadrangle area at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.