Reorganizing community college system makes sense

The Democrats who control the state legislature would be better off abandoning the slogan-friendly free community college proposal and instead get squarely behind a pragmatic plan to improve efficiency, cut costs and make Connecticut’s community colleges more student-friendly.

After some fits and starts, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian and the Board of Regents have produced and are pursuing a fundamentally sound “Student First” plan to save money and improve student outcomes.

CSCU is responsible for Eastern, Western, Southern and Central Connecticut State Universities and for Connecticut’s 13 community colleges, including Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and the online Charter Oak State College. The University of Connecticut is administered separately.

The Student First plan would develop a single administrative infrastructure to eliminate redundant administrative services while improving and providing consistency in purchasing, technology and the ability of students to move between schools in the community college and university system.

Change would be most profound at the community colleges, merging them into one centrally-managed college while maintaining all the individual campuses.

Rather than having a college president at each community college, there would be three regional presidents, each overseeing four campuses. The campuses without a regional president assigned to them will have on-campus chief executive officers, academic administrators who will pull in lower salaries than presidents. Envisioned, said Ojakian, are college-level administrators moving their way up the ladder.

But it is the elimination of redundant administrative staff where Ojakian and the regents project big savings, eliminating 160 administrative and support positions.

The regents project saving $23 million annually by 2023 due to community college restructuring, with another $11 million saved through the administrative consolidations and other efficiency measures taken across all 17 schools in the CSCU system.

That the plan has faced major pushback is no surprise. The world of academia tends to build bureaucracy with time and is resistant to changes that cut into it. Efforts to alarm students appear calculated to drum up opposition and are largely baseless. Instead of detracting from the resources available to them, this reorganization should make it easier for students to move between schools, transfer credits and access courses.

Reacting to the manufactured fear, legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly that would interject politics into the equation. It would require the legislature to sign off, providing an opportunity for special interests to lobby to protect their turf. The better course is to let Ojakian and the regents do the job for which they were appointed and confirmed by the legislature.

The plan now in the works is both a sensible approach and a necessary one. Even with a 2 percent tuition increase, the CSCU system is projecting a $28 million deficit for the community colleges next year, further eroding the $39 million in reserves that remain. Inaction eventually will lead to campus closings.

As for the movement to “make community college free for all Connecticut residents,” as proposed just last week by Senate Democrats in outlining their priorities for the remainder of the legislative session, it is impractical and imprudent, at least at this time.

First off, Connecticut can’t afford it, given its fiscal challenges.

Second, 59 percent of the 38,000 students who apply for financial aid at community colleges now attend free as a result of Pell grants and other resources, and another 10 percent pay only 25 percent of the $4,384 in-state tuition rates. Many of the students who most desperately need help are getting it.

The bigger problem is attrition, with only 16 percent of first-time, full-time students completing community college. Ojakian attributes that to the challenges many students face balancing work, living expenses, transportation and difficulty finding the courses they need.

By providing guaranteed free community college education without addressing those challenges, the legislature will be spending taxpayer money on many people who never get a degree, not a wise investment. The better option is to invest in services that provide students additional guidance in dealing with their challenges, and offer more course opportunities

CSCU has requested 200 additional faculty and 114 more advisers, a better investment than in high-cost administrators or the quixotic pursuit of free college.

Still necessary is accreditation approval for the community college consolidation plan, a tricky transitional process. But if the legislature stays out of the way, Ojakian and the regents appear to have this time set the correct course that will get them there.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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