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Public Colleges In State Facing Double Trouble

More Students, Less Money


December 04, 2008

With the economy in recession and interest from prospective students surging, officials at many public colleges and universities are expecting a boost in enrollment next fall.

That's great, they say, except for one thing:

They'll probably have to find a way to educate more students with less money.

With the state facing a massive budget shortfall, officials at public colleges and universities are anticipating major cuts in state aid.

Because of the economy, we think we're more of an affordable option," said James E. Blake, the executive vice president for finance and administration at Southern Connecticut State University. "The trick is going to be to see if we have the resources to actually meet that demand."

Like other state agencies, community colleges and state universities have already instituted hiring freezes and restrictions on travel. They have already lost some state funding and expect that even bigger cuts are on the way, possibly up to 10 percent of aid in the coming fiscal year.

Officials are forming task forces, soliciting ideas on how to identify savings and new revenue, and contemplating how to keep a rising population of students from feeling the effects of the cuts. It's still early in the planning process, but options under consideration at some schools include increasing the expected enrollment to boost tuition revenue and eliminating smaller classes.

"The challenge is, we get [students] here, we have to give them the experience we want them to get," said Western Connecticut State University President James W. Schmotter, who would have to trim $3.18 million from the school budget to make up for a 10 percent drop in state aid.

That would make it more difficult to preserve some of the school's selling points, like its 15-1 student-faculty ratio, a figure often emphasized to prospective students. With less money to hire faculty and with more students, Schmotter said, it would take some creativity to maintain that ratio.

Higher Education Commissioner Michael P. Meotti said cuts in spending on campuses "will mean things that used to be done will not be done."

Impact On Tuition

Public colleges and universities receive much of their operating money from state funding and tuition. Theoretically, a drop in state aid might be accompanied by a tuition increase.

But this time, with deep cuts anticipated, officials say it would be impossible to raise tuition enough to offset the potential reductions.

Because public colleges and universities rely more on state funding than tuition, a 10 percent cut in state aid would require an unreasonably large increase in tuition to offset it, Meotti said.

University of Connecticut President Michael J. Hogan did the math on using tuition increases to make up for potential budget cuts, but said doing so would be untenable. If UConn had to make up the money lost in a 5 percent cut, Hogan told the university's board of trustees on Nov. 18, tuition would have to increase 13.6 percent. Offsetting a 10 percent cut would call for a 26.9 percent increase in tuition.

Hogan added that such increases weren't real options, just ways to underscore the severity of the financial situation the school faces. Instead, Hogan has formed a task force to explore savings and revenue sources. He told the board of trustees that his preference would be to protect financial aid and energy funds.

"It's a really gloomy outlook," said Mary Anne B. Cox, assistant chancellor of the Connecticut community college system. "It's really dire."

Cox said it would be virtually impossible for the system to sustain a 10 percent cut in state aid without affecting students, many of whom face significant barriersto getting an education.

The timing makes the cuts particularly difficult, she said. Many adults return to school for new skills when the economy falters, and the state's 12 community colleges are increasingly educating more college-age students. This fall, 51,105 students enrolled in community colleges, a record number and a 25 percent increase since 2000.

Cox said she hopes lawmakers will consider the long-term effect of cuts in higher education.

"As you cut services to students in higher education, eventually it diminishes the opportunity for students and for the state to prosper," she said.

Cox worries that a 10 percent cut might force the system to reduce the number of students it can enroll, something she said officials hope to avoid at all costs. Doing so would start what Cox called a downward spiral: fewer students bringing in less tuition revenue, leading to even more cuts in the number of students the next year.

"That downward spiral is devastating for keeping community colleges open and preserving access to higher education," she said.

Boosting Enrollment

At Southern Connecticut State University, where tuition is higher than at the community colleges, officials are exploring the possibility of enrolling 300 more students than they had planned for next year. Blake, the school's executive vice president for finance and administration, said that adding students across the university could increase tuition revenue without significantly raising costs, and could help offset potential state funding cuts.

Officials also are considering examining under-enrolled classes and making sure all sections of courses are full as ways to save money. Losing 10 percent of the university's state funding would mean a $7.7 million cut for Southern.

At Western, the situation isn't dire, Schmotter said; years of conservative budgeting means the university would enter any budget-tightening from a strong position. Still, Schmotter is cautious. He previously worked at another university where enrollment grew rapidly and the school's services did not keep pace. Enrollment fell quickly.

With the state budget for the coming fiscal year still uncertain, the depth of the anticipated cuts is not yet official.

But Meotti, a former state legislator, said higher education, like just about every area of public policy, is unlikely to escape without reductions. Though the state Department of Higher Education sustained budget cuts earlier this year, the reductions did not target any of the $63 million in financial aid money the department provides for students, and Meotti said he hopes future cuts will similarly shield that sort of funding.

"It's hard to think that you can expect to take a pass in a scenario as serious as this," he said, "but one hopes that we don't get into a world in which everything is just prorated cuts across the board, because that's not based on priorities."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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