CT University System Seeks Budget Help as Enrollment Falls

HARTFORD — The state university system is looking to the state to help fill a budget gap that could affect Connecticut’s most vulnerable students.

As enrollment declines and the pandemic continues to impact higher education, Connecticut State’s colleges and universities initially projected a $268 million shortfall attributed to labor contracts and the loss of tuition fees. Since then, Gov. Ned Lamont has proposed a $93 million set aside that officials told the Legislature Tuesday was insufficient to fill those budget holes.

“While we appreciate the Governor’s generous support for our system and our students — there are several important and worthwhile investments in the Governor’s proposed budget — the system is still expected to experience a deficit of $174 million,” Terrence said. Cheng, chairman of the system.

While some lawmakers have questioned when there will be fewer students to serve, Cheng pointed out that the system combines access, quality and affordability for students who generally continue to live and work in the state.

“We can’t take this for granted,” Cheng told the appropriations committee, which will make recommendations to Lamont on his plan in the coming months.

The proposed budget adjustments also include financial support for specific initiatives, ranging from student financial aid to workforce development programs. But system officials said that still leaves non-discretionary costs on the table.

“These – while substantial and welcome – do not help us close our base deficit that we face for the coming year as a result of the pandemic, and the confluence of this with rising marginal costs and wages,” said Ben Barnes, the system’s chief financial officer.

One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic has been on full-time equivalent enrollment, which fell 6% at community colleges and nearly 9% at state universities from fall 2020 to 2021. , according to system data.

But the health crisis has accelerated a trend already underway: Enrollments fell during the 2010s by more than 33% and 18% at community colleges and state universities, respectively.

“We are down like the rest of the country, although we have been particularly affected. Our drop in enrollment is worse than the national average, but similar to,” Barnes said.

“To be honest, we don’t expect any improvement,” Barnes said. “If we see a recovery in enrollment in Fall 22, that will be small relative to the magnitude of our decline.”

Lawmakers weighed in on the multimillion-dollar claim and the potential effect of declining student numbers on the functioning of the system.

“There might be a little program somewhere that might be unique,” said state Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield. “And a reduction in the number of students could make it difficult to continue offering this program. But canceling this program of course means that you are canceling an opportunity, even if it is a small number of students, to be able to continue their studies here in the state.

Cheng said while higher education officials will have to have tough conversations, his plan won’t be to “cut our path to success” with programs that provide grants or boost the institution’s reputation, if not tuition fees.

State Rep. Carol Hall, R-Enfield, asked Cheng if the system had looked at “structural changes” to its footprint and staff given declining enrollment. The President highlighted how an institution impacts where it is and creates access and opportunity for parts of that constituency.

“Our multiple locations and our ability to reach those tens of thousands of students is our real strength,” Cheng said.

On Tuesday evening, these students testified before the committee, sharing personal stories and asking the legislature to invest in the system.

“I remember the anticipation throughout my senior year of high school regarding college applications,” said Nicole Elsinger, a senior at Central Connecticut State University and student government chair. “We have finally been able to define our future. However, I found it difficult to participate in this excitement. Due to my family’s financial situation, I had to bear most of the university expenses.

“I am graduating from college debt-free because of the affordable tuition and quality education I received at CCSU,” Elsinger said. “I am no longer shy or afraid in the company of others. I no longer have to wonder what I will become.

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