As Rahm Emanuel once said while his boss was trying to get Obamacare passed, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” And nothing illustrates it better than the recent announcement by University of Connecticut officials that they’re seriously considering closing their Torrington campus as lawmakers desperately seek savings while in the throes of state’s perpetual budget crisis.
Consider the facts: According to UConn Provost Mun Choi, out of a total of 136 students at the Torrington campus, only 88 are full-time students. More alarming is the recent trend in undergraduate enrollment, which has dropped by 15 percent since 2011. Furthermore, fully one-third of the branch’s students take courses at other UConn campuses or at another institution, presumably because the Torrington branch is so small that it cannot offer the courses they need to fulfill their majors.
I know many people who attended the Torrington branch who benefitted greatly from the program, but the numbers simply do not justify the campus’ $1.4 million operating budget. And most certainly the paltry enrollment does not justify the estimated $8.6 million needed to perform critical repairs and renovations to the 50-year-old physical plant, which state Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, says resembles “a 1960s elementary school.”
It looks like the city of Torrington will try to challenge the closure. Torrington Mayor Elinor C. Carbone told the Republican-American newspaper she doesn’t believe the university can close up shop.
Carbone says the campus is on land given to the state by a city resident and was built through a trust donated to the university. She cited a 1983 decision by then-Attorney General Joe Lieberman that UConn cannot close the branch. If the trust does indeed mandate the continued operation of branch, couldn’t the state simply reimburse the donor or her family the full amount of the trust and get out of the legal entanglement? Even that would surely be cheaper than operating and maintaining an institution of higher learning with a total of 136 students and dropping.
No doubt the Torrington branch was hamstrung by its relatively isolated location and competition from nearby Northwestern Connecticut Community College, which has been aggressively marketing its nursing and manufacturing programs. And it doesn’t help that Torrington has to compete with a thriving UConn branch only half an hour away in Waterbury.
But even an online petition circulated by former state rep candidate Brian Ohler of North Canaan and the plaintive cries of “social injustice” weren’t enough to save the campus from probable extinction as the academic affairs committee of the UConn Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Wednesday to recommend shuttering the campus to the full board next month.
Sadder still is that the closing of the Torrington campus is just the tip of the iceberg. The unfortunate truth is that as birth rates continue to stagnate across the northeast and families leave for greener pastures, the school-age population is shrinking to the point that some schools and districts will become too small to sustain themselves.
According to UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz, the number of potential applicants to the Torrington branch from northern Connecticut high schools has dropped almost eight percent since 2007. And those numbers would probably have dropped even more if not for the economic crisis of 2008, which made almost any taxpayer-subsidized public college look like a great bargain.
Take my local secondary school in Falls Village. At Housatonic Valley Regional High School, enrollment has plummeted from 630 students in 2005 to fewer than 400 now, even as per pupil costs have skyrocketed from $11,000 to more than $26,000. By 2024, enrollments are projected to be slightly more than 300. Two of Region One’s elementary schools have fewer than 100 students in grades pre-K-8.
A few miles north in Berkshire County, Mass., the Southern Berkshire Regional School District is projected to have no more than 400 students total by 2025. How is it possible to have a comprehensive high school with only 100 students? Answer: you can’t, so district officials are looking into joining forces with another nearby system in what would be the first merger of two regional school districts in state history.
The are no perfect solutions to this crisis. But one thing is certain. If trends continue over the next 50 years, perhaps dozens of schools in rural regions throughout New England, including greater Torrington, will close in an effort to achieve economies of scale. Lots of small towns will lose their community schools. The students who remain will have to endure long bus rides. Furthermore, as is the case with UConn Torrington, the closures will likely come at the behest of the states that fund them. And it will not be pleasant.
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