Matt Fleury, Board of Regents chairman and Mark Ojakian, president of CSUS, at a Board of Regents meeting in December 2017 (CTNEWSJUNKIE FILE PHOTO)

I have to admit I’m somewhat surprised by the difficulties currently facing Connecticut’s community colleges. As a high school teacher for 27 years, I’ve seen many students choose one of the state’s 12 community colleges to further their education. Besides convenience and affordability, these colleges offer a variety of programs for direct entry into a competitive job market or into a baccalaureate program at a four-year institution.

Each year at this time, my journalism students at Haddam-Killingworth High School conduct a survey that asks seniors about their future plans. Over the past six years, an average of 17 students a year — a bit more than 10 percent of the typical H-K graduating class — named a community college as their destination. Since we’re just one of nearly 500 high schools in Connecticut — and a small one, at that — it feels like community colleges would still be in high demand across the entire state.

But even if they are in demand, the problem is demographics. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, Connecticut is one of 16 states with a projected decrease in high school students between 2012-13 and 2025-26. In fact, it’s one of just eight states with a predicted decrease of five percent or more over the next decade.

Consequently, Connecticut’s community colleges have already seen a 6 percent decrease in student enrollment from 56,858 in 2012-13 to 53,322 in 2014-15. Concurrently, the funding from “state and local grants and contracts” dropped from $15.5 million in 2012-13 to $9 million in 2014-15. And therein lies the problem: Declining high school grads + declining state aid = complications for community colleges.

That’s why Mark Ojakian, president of the body that oversees community colleges (the Connecticut State College and University System), has pushed hard for “Students First” — an austerity program of sorts that would merge the community colleges into one organization. As my colleague Terry Cowgill outlined last week, that plan was rejected by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, “throw[ing] the system into chaos and uncertainty.”

Wrote the NEASC: “Because of the magnitude of the proposed changes, the proposed timeline, and the limited investment in supporting the changes, the Commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment for students is too high for it to approve the proposed Community College of Connecticut.”

So where do the community colleges go from here?

To begin, they should continue to develop educational programs that directly meet the needs of the Connecticut economy. Advanced manufacturing initiatives are a perfect example — like the latest program announced last month at Farmington’s Tunxis Community College, the eighth such community college-based program in the state.

“Connecticut is benefiting from rising demand for commercial and military jet engines, submarines and helicopters,” reported the Hartford Courant. “However, thousands of manufacturers in the state are scrambling to hire qualified workers to keep up with production and fill jobs left vacant by retiring baby boomers.”

The Tunxis program “will offer associate degrees in manufacturing and machine technology. It also will offer certificates in machine technology and manufacturing electro-mechanical maintenance technology.”

Community colleges, simply, are an ideal location for training programs that result in immediate and significant contributions to the local economy. Indeed, rather than cutting funding to these schools, the state should be investing in them. A 2011 study by the American Association of Community Colleges outlined the economic benefits of this strategy.

“Investments in higher education, particularly investments in community colleges, yield a wide array of economic and societal returns that far outweigh the initial costs to students and the public,” including more tax revenues and lower unemployment. The report specifically noted that the “taxpayer benefit over a lifetime for having a student complete postsecondary education compared to high school ranges from $24,000 to $51,000, depending on race and gender.”

Thus, what might first look like a pipe dream — the tuition-free, college-completion plan recently proposed by Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford — could really be an investment that pays major dividends later.

In other words, merging community colleges into one monolithic statewide organization is exactly what this state does not need. Rather, Connecticut should heed the existing mission of its community colleges by encouraging “comprehensive degree and certificate programs, non-credit life-long learning opportunities, and job-skills training programs” that make “excellent higher education and lifelong learning affordable and accessible.” Simple as that.

Barth Keck is a father of three and an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.