Leader of college group: Private colleges want to be a partner in economic development

New London — As a nonpartisan organization, the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges did not make an endorsement in the gubernatorial race, but President Jennifer Widness has been "heartened" by Gov.-elect Ned Lamont's acknowledgment of the need to educate the labor force of tomorrow.

Widness said of the organization, "We've really been focused on ensuring that the colleges in the state are partners in economic development and have a seat at the table." She also said she was heartened by Lamont's approach of bringing as many stakeholders as possible "to the table right off the bat."

Widness sat down with The Day Editorial Board on Monday afternoon for a discussion on workforce development, financial aid, PILOT payments and more.

CCIC represents 15 private nonprofit higher education institutions in Connecticut; in the southeastern corner, that includes Connecticut College and Mitchell College.

One way Widness wants to work with the state is by sharing data, such as figures on the share of students from each college who are still living in Connecticut two years after graduating.

CCIC started with five schools in the first year and has data from eight this year, she said. Conn and Mitchell are now beginning to provide data. 

Widness noted that she has been talking to Lamont's team about recommendations on how to help students stay in Connecticut after graduation. She is also concerned that Connecticut exports more students for college than it imports.

Another economic development concern for Widness is making sure the conversation about labor shortages is not solely focused on programs that require less time than a bachelor's degree.

"We hear from large employers that they need computer scientists and they can't hire engineers," she said.

Widness noted that member institutions have also been involved in economic development through their work with the Innovation Places initiative of CTNext.

Along with advocating for independent colleges to be included in economic development strategies, one of the legislative priorities CCIC has for 2019 is maintaining or increasing PILOT — payment in lieu of taxes — grants to municipalities.

Widness noted that Connecticut is the only state except Rhode Island with a state PILOT program, and she expressed concern that municipalities view colleges as a burden rather than a partner because of their tax exemptions. According to Widness' analysis of 2016 grand list information, Conn and Mitchell account for 25.4 percent of all tax-exempt property value in New London, more than hospitals or municipal uses, and make up 9 percent of the city's total land.

"We know that cities like New London and New Haven are facing significant fiscal challenges, and we just want to be viewed as partners in economic development," she said.

She commented that colleges giving more to municipalities "is not going to stop the long-term pain" and "only will exacerbate the cost issue for colleges if we're not devoting this to financial aid."

She is also concerned about the possibility of state and federal dollars for financial aid being diverted to free tuition at public institutions, given all the talk about free college happening across the country.

Widness said students coming to private colleges in the state "are increasingly needy or less able to pay full price," and that colleges are doing everything they can to keep costs down.

According to CCIC, and using figures from the governmental Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the total amount of institutional financial aid awarded by its members grew from $485 million in 2008 to $1 billion last year. That includes increases of 88.9 percent for Conn and 29.8 percent for Mitchell. 

e.moser@theday.com

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