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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Staff, students gather in Norwich to protest cuts to community college system

    Students march along New London Turnpike during a student, faculty and staff protest at Connecticut State Community College Three Rivers campus in Norwich Monday, April 1, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Students march along New London Turnpike during a student, faculty and staff protest at Connecticut State Community College Three Rivers campus in Norwich Monday, April 1, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Students march along New London Turnpike during a student, faculty and staff protest at Connecticut State Community College Three Rivers campus in Norwich Monday, April 1, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Students react to a speaker during a student, faculty and staff protest at Connecticut State Community College Three Rivers campus in Norwich Monday, April 1, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Students listen to a speaker during a student, faculty and staff protest at Connecticut State Community College Three Rivers campus in Norwich on Monday, April 1, 2024. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Norwich ― Lily Bentley of Norwich says community college students in the state are being held back because of budget cuts in the newly merged community college system.

    Bentley joined about 50 fellow students and faculty members outside Three Rivers Campus of Connecticut State Community College on Monday to voice disappointment in budget cuts at Three Rivers that she and others said have resulted in scaled-back hours in the library, bookstore and cafeteria, along with a reduction in tutoring services and student work hours.

    The group of protesters held signs, chanted and delivered remarks calling on the governor and state legislatures to address a budget deficit they said is stripping amenities from students, many of whom are non-traditional, have full-time jobs or are taking care of children and in many cases are the first member of their family to attend college.

    “It is a commonly emphasized mantra that the smartest decision to make as someone going to college is to begin at community college. The lower tuition allows students who would never be able to afford to go to college to receive a higher education like myself,” Bentley said. “What I didn’t know was how compromised my college career would be because I go to Three Rivers.”

    Bentley, a first-generation college student, is a second year student at Three Rivers who is seeking a degree in environmental engineering and technology and serves as vice president of the Three Rivers United Environmentalists.

    Last year, Three Rivers was one of the state’s 12 community colleges to merge into one entity known as Connecticut State Community College, the result of years of discussions to address declining enrollments and financial concerns at community colleges.

    The CSCU Board of Regents in December, facing a $140 million projected shortfall for fiscal year 2025 in part because of the expiration of pandemic relief funds, approved a 5% tuition hike to try and help close the gap. The increase goes into effect in the fall. The increase will result in annual tuition at community colleges going from $4,972 to $5,218.

    Three Rivers professor Diba Khan-Bureau, the coordinator of Three Rivers’ environmental engineering technology program who helped organize Monday’s protest, called cutbacks “an injustice for our students” and blamed the governor and state legislators.

    “What was supposed to save the state of Connecticut millions of dollars only has led to costly increases, ” Khan-Bureau said of the merger. “Our students are going to bear the brunt of this mismanaged bureaucratic system.”

    State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the General Assembly Appropriations Committee, said that the governor’s overall budget has more funding for the CSCU system as well as PACT (Pledge to Advance CT) funding to provide financial assistance but that the legislature is obligated to stay within the confines of the “fiscal guardrails” implemented by the legislature last year that imposes a spending cap and limits overall spending.

    Osten said she is sympathetic to college students, especially those attending community colleges, since they are usually working, sometimes two jobs, while attending school.

    “We want to make sure we are providing as many resources as we can,” Osten said.

    Osten said part of the problem with community colleges and universities alike, except at the University of Connecticut, is a drop in student enrollment and a corresponding decrease in revenue from tuition.

    Baylee Gagnier of Montville, who is graduating from Three Rivers with a degree in environmental engineering and technology and a certificate in occupational health and management, serves as a teaching assistant and works for the on-campus tutoring center.

    “Being a student at Three Rivers for the past two years, I have been able to witness first-hand the decline of my college in multiple aspects due to these budget cuts,“ Gagnier said.

    One example, Gagnier said, is the community food pantry, whose hours were cut and is now closed on Fridays and has a “devastating impact that people don’t notice or take into consideration.”

    Monday’s protest was supported by labor unions representing the community college faculty and staff.

    Sam Norton, a spokesperson for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, said students, faculty and staff at the community colleges, the four state universities, and Charter Oak State College have voiced opinions “about how the difficult steps we have taken to close our budget deficit have negatively affected their overall academic experience and outcomes.”

    “These spending reductions have resulted in reduced student and food services, larger class sizes, and program reductions. This legislative session, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system has asked the legislature for an additional $47.6 million in funding, which includes $41.3 million for CT State Community College,” Norton said.

    “This funding will allow us to further invest in our greatest asset – our students – by ensuring they have access to the resources and support systems needed to succeed. CSCU continues to have positive conversations with lawmakers, the Governor’s Office, and the Office of Policy and Management about the importance of investing in higher education,” Norton said.

    Community colleges now part of the newly merged system are located in Enfield, Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Manchester, Middletown, Waterbury, Danielson, Winsted, Norwich and Farmington. There are 85,000 students enrolled in community colleges and state universities governed by the new entity, and 42% of them are Black or Hispanic.

    g.smith@theday.com

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