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As Connecticut's Community Colleges Inch Toward Consolidation, Debate Remains Divisive

Mark Ojakian
Chion Wolf
Connecticut Public Radio
Mark Ojakian

There's currently a $12 million hole in the state's community college budget for next year, and the gap is expected to widen in the coming years if changes don't happen soon.

The Board of Regents for Higher Education approved the use of $8 million from its reserve funds to cover some of the shortfall, but that money won't last forever.

The debate over how to move forward is where things get divisive. Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, is pushing for a plan called Students First. It would consolidate all 12 community colleges into one -- an idea that was rejected by an accrediting agency last year, because the plan would have basically created an entirely new school. Now Ojakian's fine-tuning the idea.

Many faculty have voted "no confidence" in Mark Ojakian, saying Students First would instead “put the system office first.” Speaking on Connecticut Public Radio's Where We Live, Ojakian said something has to change.

"I may not propose closing a community college, but our accreditors will take a look and say, 'You don't have reserves, you're not in a financial position to stay open’,” Ojakian said. “As you know, across the country institutions are closing and leaving students at risk. This proposal keeps access in place, all of the campuses, all of the satellite campuses, stay open."

Students First includes projected annual savings of up to $23 million. The state legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis reviewed the plan and found that “generally the Students First costs and savings are supported,” though some of the estimates were too high, or too low. The plan also includes annual tuition increases of 2.5 percent.

Many faculty and students have pointed out that student services will be cut, and the community colleges will lose their local identity after being consolidated into a single school.

Lois Aime, director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College, said that each school serves certain demographics, and the offerings should reflect the needs of the community, and not be homogenized.

“Connecticut may be a small area, but it’s a very diverse state,” Aime told the show. “What our needs down here -- and our students needs and our community needs -- are much different from anywhere else.”

Faculty representatives said they have other ideas for how to save money, but they aren't being heard.

Edith Ouellet, division director of nursing and allied health at Three Rivers Community College, said there are management positions that can be cut, but Ojakian isn’t listening.

“There are other ways to save money, and [Ojakian] never ever asked, ever,” Ouellet said. Ojakian said that he has gotten ideas, but he hasn’t gotten a comprehensive alternative plan to deal with the deeper, systemic issues.

The accreditation agency that would decide on the Students First fate, known as NECHE, has said that 10 out of 12 of the state’s community colleges are at risk of financial insolvency. Graduation rates at nine of the schools are so low that it also threatens the schools’ viability.

Leigh Appleby, a spokesman for CSCU, said that’s why something has to change.

“We cannot be satisfied with a 16 percent graduation rate, nor can we risk the future of our colleges by failing to address systemic fiscal challenges,” Appleby stated in an email. That rate is based on all students, including those who transfer to other schools, which is often high for many community colleges.

Ojakian said there are several reasons why the graduation rate is so low, and he hopes that Students First will help mitigate some of those obstacles.

In testimony last year in front of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, NECHE’s senior vice president, Patricia O’Brien, said Students First “is the largest consolidation proposal the New England commission has seen.”

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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