Finding a path to a Connecticut College, New London deal

The details are familiar to regular readers of The Day. Connecticut College, which this academic year is charging students $67,400 for tuition and board, compensates its host city of New London with $12,500 annually. The agreement for the annual payment settled a dispute over whether the city should be able to assess property taxes on some buildings because of commercial uses.

As a nonprofit educational institution, Conn College is exempt from property taxation.

The 10-year deal setting this anemic level of compensation expires this year. When she visited with the editorial board last month, college President Katherine Bergeron said her administration is in discussions with Mayor Michael Passero about a new arrangement.

In a column last spring, David Collins noted that Yale University volunteers $8.2 million in payments to New Haven every year, in addition to the $4.5 million it pays in taxes on its commercial properties. Brown University in Providence pays $8 million in voluntary and property tax payments to the city, along with $2.3 million in fees.

Those large Ivy League institutions, however, have massive endowments — about $25 billion for Yale, $3.2 billion for Brown — compared to Conn at nearly $300 million.

Unless and until the state changes the law to allow municipalities to assess these institutions for such services as fire and police protection, no one can compel Conn College to help the city pay its bills.

In her meeting with the editorial board, Bergeron said she would like any voluntary investment by the college to be in keeping with the college’s mission as an educational institution and preferably in partnership with the city or local organizations.

Some have suggested to me that the college award scholarships to city students. In fact the college's existing Jane Bredeson Scholarship covers up to half the cost of tuition for New London residents who are full-time students. Need-based financial aid can further close the gap for students from the city. Since the college established the program in 1996, it has provided $1.4 million in scholarships to New London residents, according to the college.

College officials also point to the hundreds of students who work as tutors and mentors in the New London Public Schools or as volunteers for a variety of nonprofit organizations in the city. Yet this is only doing what most colleges do.

Conn College needs to do more and the fact Bergeron is talking suggests it is prepared to do so. In wanting to connect any aid to the city to the college's educational mission, rather than simply writing a check, Bergeron makes a fair request.

My suggestion would be to settle on a number; $500,000 would be about half of what Brown contributes to Providence, proportionate to the respective endowments of the two colleges, but a huge jump nonetheless.

It would then be a matter of how the money is spent, not whether it is provided.

A committee with representatives of the city and the college community could assess proposals that meet a city need and comply with the college’s mission. It might be an effort to better connect college students to the city. A program that provides direct aid to city schools. A research program that helps New London officials identify and address a particular need.

Who knows, such an arrangement could reveal other cooperative opportunities that identify financial sources outside the dedicated payment that benefit both the college and its host city.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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