As public universities in Connecticut continue to grapple with a projected $48 million deficit, the Board of Regents for Higher Education voted Thursday afternoon to approve a 4.8 percent tuition increase for students across the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.
Comprised of 17 colleges and universities across the state, the CSCU system is facing a budget deficit that comes in part from Gov. Dannel Malloy’s “tough choices” budget proposal, announced in February, which cut funds across many agencies. Education finance experts cite rising operations costs as an additional budgetary difficulty, particularly in light of a projected decrease in state appropriations for higher education.
Michael Kozlowski, director of marketing and public affairs for the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, said the board is trying to look at the budget deficit pragmatically and is using figures from its current operations and services in order to predict next year’s operating costs.
“We’ve found that it would cost us an additional $48 million to do, next year, everything we’re doing this year,” Kozlowski said.
While he attributed some of the budgetary difficulties to Malloy’s funding proposal — which is pending approval of the Connecticut legislature later this year — Kozlowski also underlined this year’s agreement with unionized employees for a 5.5 percent payment increase. He said roughly 90 percent of the system’s employees are organized into collective bargaining units.
The 4.8 percent tuition increase across schools in the CSCU system would raise $21.6 million towards the projected $48 million deficit. The rest, he said, would likely be made up by a combination of sources, including a prohibition on discretionary spending — which includes consultant fees and new advertising campaigns — and, perhaps, a controversial hiring freeze.
“A hiring freeze is not hard and fast. The president of the Board of Regents must approve all of that,” Kozlowski said. “That’s going to be a long process, and will probably make some people upset.”
According to Kozlowski, these measures would have to add up to about $22 million.
The CSCU system includes four state universities, 12 community colleges and Charter Oak State College. The University of Connecticut is not a member of the CSCU system.
Casey Coassin, an education major at Southern Connecticut State University, said that she transferred to SCSU for its affordability; the transfer reduced her tuition from roughly $40,000 at her previous university to approximately $8,000 as an in-state commuter student at SCSU.
“I think that a small increase to Southern’s tuition wouldn’t be a huge deal because it is one of the least expensive universities in the area,” Coassin said. “However, there are quite a few fees that I avoid in being [an in-state commuter].”
Topher DeFeo, also a student at SCSU, said that as a part-time student, he spends most of his day working and that a tuition hike would therefore be detrimental to him. He also questioned why the university was doing construction on campus in the face of a budget deficit.
Coassin also noted the campus’ growth and expressed concern about whether enough money is being put back into the quality of education and the academic structure of the university.
“One of the few reasons that I am attending Southern is due to it’s affordability, and very little outside of that,” Coassin said.
Kozlowski said that because funding for construction is a part of the capital equipment budget, it is handled through a government bonding process that is separate from the rest of CSCU’s operating budget. As such, he said, the $48 million deficit is unrelated to the costs of constructing or maintaining any of the buildings across the system’s 17 campuses.
Additionally, Kozlowski said, the money for these construction projects — including SCSU’s $49 million Academic and Laboratory Science Building, which will be completed this spring — was likely bonded before these recent financial woes.
Carlos Torre, a member of the President’s Executive Council at Gateway Community College and the president of New Haven’s Board of Education, said the funding deficit is taking a particularly harsh toll on the state’s community colleges.
“I know that oftentimes because of the lack of funding, the college is depending on other sources,” Torre said. “It finds itself between a rock and a hard place.”
The Board of Regents must develop and agree on the following academic year’s tuition in March, despite the fact that Malloy’s budget will not be approved by the state legislature until June.
Although Kozlowski said this adds uncertainty into the matter, the board will not further increase tuition in the case of a deficit that surpasses the projected $48 million.
“We’re aiming at a moving target,” Kozlowski said. “If we have a bigger deficit come June, we’ll take that additional cost out of our operating budget. We don’t want to be a burden on the students.”
At Thursday’s meeting, 10 board members voted in favor of the proposed tuition increase, while four voted against it and one abstained.