There was a small protest at Central Connecticut State University this week, in which students and faculty demanded the government reconsider a new wave of tuition hikes. You probably missed it. The government certainly did, more’s the pity; on Thursday the Board of Regents for Higher Education approved tuition hikes.
Last year in Montréal, only five hours north of New Britain, student unions took to the streets in a massive, months-long strike that grew out of proposed tuition hikes. The strikes paralyzed the city and led to some Draconian responses from the government, including severe limits on protests. The ruling Liberal Party was defeated in September elections, though it’s unclear how much the student demonstrations had to do with that, and the incoming Parti Québécois government briefly froze tuition and cast aside some of the anti-protest laws. All of this happened because tuition was to increase to about $3,000.
Tuition for in-state students at Connecticut’s state university system is now hovering around $8,900, and that’s for in-state students who commute. It’s worse if you want to live on campus, or come from another state. Protesting students were worried about a massive student debt load, scholarship money running out, and finally being cut off from what is supposed to be public higher education. It’s amazing that more of them aren’t in the streets.
Public higher education in Connecticut has been stuck in the desert of austerity for a long, long time. The system’s costs have been increasing as both enrollment and compensation for employees go up, but for years the state has offloaded more and more of those costs onto the students. In fact, according to a report prepared by the state Department of Education, the state hasn’t dramatically increased the money it spends in real, inflation-adjusted dollars on higher education since 1990. In 2011 the state actually spent $27 million less in inflation-adjusted dollars on higher education than it spent in 1990, despite a steady increase in enrollment.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the state of higher education. I’ve seen plenty of people point the finger at shoddy budgeting and expensive faculty salaries and benefits. The conservative Yankee Institute released a list this week of retired state employees receiving a pension of more than $100,000; most were former university employees. The highest-paid state employees are almost all affiliated with the University of Connecticut; either as extremely valuable and highly-trained medical professionals or, well, basketball coaches. Various reports on the state of higher education blame collective bargaining, at least in part, and there may be something to that. But the state absolutely shares some of the blame, as well; they are too quick to slash or flat-fund higher education. None of this is the fault of those actually being asked to shoulder the costs.
Look, I know that times are hard, and that the governor and legislature have to make tough choices. Gov. Malloy has been up-front with angry students; this is a tough time all over the country, and some costs need to be cut. He defended the cuts by putting them in a national context on Wednesday, saying that while state support has certainly decreased, it “has decreased about 20 percent less than the national average.” What a sad commentary on our national priorities that is.
Still, shameful national trends aside, demanding students bear ever increasing shares of the cost of higher education is a recipe for disaster. When these students do graduate, they’ll be buried by a mountain of debt before they get their first job. Non-traditional students going back to school in order to make their lives and the lives of their children better will have to suffer debt they can’t afford. Many may decide to forget about college completely. In a country where employers are complaining that job seekers don’t have the skills they’re looking for and a college degree is becoming essential even for entry-level jobs, this is very clearly robbing the future to pay for today.
Students in Quebec got that, and took to the streets. The students in Quebec believed higher education, like elementary and secondary education, is a right that should be accessible to anyone who wants it. We think we can’t afford to believe that here, not anymore. But at some point we must rethink our commitment to our public colleges and universities, and find a way to change the sad fact that for many, higher education has been priced beyond their means.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.