Susan Bigelow

Connecticut’s state colleges and universities are in deep, deep trouble. Higher ed leaders are warning the state that if funding isn’t increased, they will face devastating layoffs, tuition hikes, service cuts, and possibly even campus closures. 

And that’s true. If this budget passes as-is, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System (CSCU) will have about $70 million less in total funds than they did last year. That’s a massive hit, and will be disastrous for public higher education in this state.

But it’s also true that the budget approved by the Appropriations Committee, the one that CSCU says will absolutely ruin them, actually increases state funding by $60 million over the previous year. State funding for higher education is nearly $120 million higher than it was in 2018-19. 

The actual decrease is because pandemic funding from the state and federal governments is running out. The legislature unwisely used pandemic funding for ongoing costs, such as staff salaries and raises, instead of funding them directly. And the state, despite a surplus running in the billions of dollars, is hamstrung by recently-enacted spending restrictions, which leaves them no clear way to find the money the public colleges and universities need.

What a mess. How did we get into this situation? Oh man. Where to even start?

Some of the problems plaguing Connecticut’s public colleges and universities are absolutely of their own making. Western Connecticut State University, for instance, has been in a state of financial crisis, partly because of poor governance issues. The University of Connecticut has been accused of being top-heavy when it comes to the ratio of administrators to faculty/staff for years. Oh, and UConn has spent way more than it takes in for athletics in the past, especially when it comes to the football program.

But other problems are caused by forces far outside of their control, which are wreaking havoc on both private and public colleges all across New England.

The pandemic was obviously a huge problem for higher ed. Enrollments plunged, buildings sat empty, and universities scrambled to scrape together a system of online learning that actually worked. But the pandemic didn’t cause this situation, though it did worsen it. The real culprit here is twofold.

The first is the general, longstanding decline of high school graduates in New England. This is something colleges and universities have known about and talked about for decades. I started working in higher ed in 2004, at a private college in Massachusetts, and it was a major discussion topic then. Institutions of higher education all across New England took a look at our aging population and heard alarm bells going off. There are over 250 colleges and universities in the region, and it was clear that some of them weren’t going to survive. Different institutions responded in different ways. Some developed robust online programs. Others embarked on massive building campaigns to lure students with shiny new facilities, or inaugurated new kinds of student services. Smaller institutions that couldn’t do any of those things scrambled to carve out some kind of niche that would let them survive. Almost all of them began to rely ever more heavily on underpaid adjuncts instead of full-time faculty with salaries and benefits, even as they increased tuition and fees.

All of this has made life harder for public colleges and universities. New England has a lot more private, nonprofit institutions of higher education than other regions, all of which are competing for a shrinking pool of students by trying to offer amenities public higher ed doesn’t. The combination of demographic decline and increased competition has caused a devastating drop in enrollment at state institutions. Western Connecticut State University’s full-time-equivalent enrollment dropped from 5,671 in 2012 to 4,382 in 2021, for instance, but this is a systemwide problem from UConn to the community colleges.

The second major cause of the problems plaguing the state colleges and universities is a more existential one. What, exactly, is the university for? What does higher education do, and what is it supposed to do? Is the university just the constant, cynical chase after student dollars, or should it be something more? Is a college there just to train future workers, or should it let students explore and learn the subjects that fascinate them, even if they aren’t profitable? A college or university that says it knows the answer to any of these questions is either lying or is an Ivy League school with an endowment so vast that they can do whatever they want. 

This identity crisis pits faculty and administrators against one another, alienates students, and leaves legislators wondering if anybody knows the best way to support public higher education.

The only thing that’s clear is that these institutions are valuable, even as they struggle, and that we are much better off with them than without them. A campus closure would put a huge economic, social, and educational hole in whatever region that campus served. 

Plus, without public higher ed to serve the neediest and the most vulnerable, the field would be left open to predatory, usually for-profit colleges that prey on impoverished, often minority students who are dreaming of a better life. When those schools fail, which they often do, these students are left with nothing but worthless credits, debt, and wasted years.

So yes, legislators must act to save our public colleges and universities, even though it’s certain to be painful in the short term. But they also must demand that these institutions get their houses in order, and figure out where they’re going and why. If they don’t, we’ll just have to do this again in another decade.

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Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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