Students, unions call on CT lawmakers to avert funding ‘crisis’ at public colleges and universities
Ahead of the 2024 legislative session, higher education advocates are urging for reforms, saying the underfunding of state universities and community colleges has reached “crisis” levels and it is adversely affecting diverse communities. Students and advocates called for $160 million from the state to support vital services in state higher education.
Sadie Boisvert, a student at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, shared her personal experiences and voiced concerns regarding the deteriorating infrastructure, persistent maintenance issues, program cancellations, and reductions in faculty at her school.
“After arriving at the dorm, I went to brush my teeth. Come to find out the sink was not working. This was due to a water main break that led the campus to be closed,” Boisvert said. “As of now, the building is still undergoing cleanup due to flooding, including a computer lab, the library and countless classrooms that cannot be used.”
Boisvert says there have also been reports where stovetops have shorted fuses that spark when students try to turn them on, and mold has been found in vents causing students to get sick. On top of the facilities issues, she said programs have suffered.
“Courses have been canceled due to lack of staff,” Boisvert said.
For students who don’t reside in dormitories, affordability also continues to be an issue. Maia Dunbar, a nursing program student at Connecticut State Community College Gateway campus in New Haven, expressed her challenges as a mother striving for success.
“I am a non-traditional student, as I am an older working single mother with a mortgage. Stop cutting and invest in our system, so students who wish to pursue their dreams at all points of their lives can,” Dunbar said.
She said the shortage of nurse educators and the lack of affordability of higher education results in interested students turning away from the nursing program at a time when healthcare workers are needed.
“It is well documented that we are dealing with a nursing shortage crisis,” Dunbar said. “The shortage cannot be solved unless higher education institutions rapidly train more.”
Louise Williams, president of the faculty union for Connecticut State Universities CSU-AAUP and professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, highlighted what she calls the detrimental impact of state budget guardrails, describing them as hindrances to progress, maintaining the status quo and limiting opportunities for residents to develop skills. She emphasized the difficulties working and middle-class individuals face in pursuing advanced degrees due to funding challenges.
According to advocates, there are 26,928 enrolled students at Connecticut State Universities and 33,121 in CT state colleges.
A Connecticut Department of Education report released in April 2023 indicated college enrollment for public high school students who graduated in 2021 dropped to 66.1%, but the decrease was less steep than in 2020. College enrollment for Black and Latino students, as well as students from low-income families, decreased for the second year in a row. Graduation rates also saw a small decline, with 49.2% of the class of 2016 earning a two- or four-year degree within six years after high school, slightly lower than the 50.0% rate for 2015.
President of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges, Seth Freeman, echoed the students' concerns, saying the system faces a crisis resulting from decades of underfunding. Freeman called for $160 million in emergency funding to reverse service cuts and prevent a 5% tuition hike.
“Rather than investing in the education of our white, black, and brown working-class students, we're doing the opposite, cutting programs, cutting services, raising tuition, and taking lots of opportunities away,” Freeman said.
State Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, shared his concerns about Connecticut's higher education institutions making national headlines in Forbes, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, and Inside Higher Ed due to potential devastating cuts. He stressed the importance of sustainability, predictability, and critical investments in higher education to boost the state's economic growth. Slap urged collaboration among legislators to make progress in supporting higher education.
State Sen. Martin Looney, President Pro Tempore of the Connecticut State Senate, emphasized the role of public higher education in economic development, stressing the need to provide more support for Connecticut's state universities and community colleges. Looney also proposed finding additional revenue for birth-to-five programs, preschools, and daycare, addressing the nursing shortage crisis, and reassessing the spending cap's threshold to allow flexibility.
“Do we need to have a spending cap?” asked Looney. “We need to have guardrails, but they need to be able to be adjusted from time to time to reflect the needs that occur and become more pressing over time.”
The office of Gov. Ned Lamont issued a statement regarding the guardrail and spending cap, stating that, “The governor has been clear that the fiscal guardrails have been essential to ending year after year of repeated deficits and finally bringing the state’s fiscal health to a stronger place.”