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Connecticut Colleges - All in the Family

A reorganizing of the state’s higher education education has put Connecticut’s community colleges under the same umbrella as the four state schools, making transfers easier and streamlining funds and staff. But will it survive the state’s budget ax? 

Here are some startling statistics: About two-thirds of students start their community college careers in Connecticut in the remediation track for English and/or math, and of them, only about 8 percent earn a credential within three years. And about 70 percent of African American, Hispanic and low-income students are enrolled in remedial and developmental courses, compared with 56 percent for white students and 29 percent for non-low-income students. Along the way, many spend their financial aid on these non-credit courses and some go into debt with student loans—but with no degree to show for their efforts.

That reality, and the state’s financial woes— led Gov. Dannel Malloy to propose, and the General Assembly to pass, an overhaul of higher education starting July 2011. The legislation merged the Connecticut State University System’s four schools—Central, Southern, Western and Eastern—the dozen community colleges, the online Charter Oak State College and the state Department of Higher Education into a new body, the Board of Regents for Higher Education. All told, the new system includes almost 100,000 students. (UConn was not affected by the reorganization.)

Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chair of the General Assembly’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, says the big impetus for the move was saving money by streamlining the administration of so many individual entities (and reducing the number of lobbyists pestering lawmakers, she adds), to the tune of almost $5 million a year in personnel costs. “That’s $5 million in operational savings, every year,” she says.

Besides streamlining the funding and addressing remediation, the other main goal was to streamline the interface between the state’s 12 community colleges and the four state universities. Previously, each school set its own criteria for which community college courses it would accept for transfer, and many students found out after the fact that their courses weren’t accepted. They would have to re-take the course at their new school, which added time and money to their quest for an education.

Bye says the administrative savings were supposed to be applied to hiring 47 new faculty across all the institutions. “The whole goal was to move the dollars out of the central office and down into the campuses, but the irony is that now with all these budget cuts, those 47 positions are not being hired. That's very discouraging. All these things get in the way of kids finishing. When you don't have enough faculty, the kids can't get the classes they need to graduate because there aren't enough sections.” Her only hope is that the $5 million cut will stave off even more draconian cuts.

An “articulation agreement” that was part of the legislation is being implemented; it will smooth the way for students to transfer from community college to a state university. Bye says it’s about time. “We've been dealing for 20 years with the issue of getting class credits to transfer from the community colleges to the CSUs,” she says. “Students were consistently losing classes that they'd taken—and that the state had paid for—that wouldn't count toward their degree. Once we had a Board of Regents, within a year we got an agreement on a 30-credit common set of classes that can transfer across all campuses.”

She adds that since the change, “We’re finding at least half the students are taking some classes at another institution, so wouldn't it be better if English at Capital is the same as English at Central, so that if you transfer, it counts? From a policy-making perspective it's better to have one system moving toward similar goals, even if you're delivering it in different ways. Certainly, community colleges are very different from state universities, but it's better if they're working together.”

One way they’re different is that community colleges have historically had an “open door” policy of accepting students who want to come, without regard to test scores or GPAs, then helping a majority of them fill gaps in their basic education by offering remediation courses in English, reading and math. They also differ in that the average age of their students is 29, not 18 to 22 as in most four-year colleges (though that’s changing too), and more of their students are juggling work and family obligations while juggling their school books.

Wilfredo Nieves, president of Capital Community College in Hartford, says it’s too early to tell what difference these changes will make, adding, “The budget is more an issue than the merger.” He says the 5 percent funding rescission in late 2012, on top of the $5 million budget cut, is making things more difficult. “We don't want the budget cuts to force students out,” he says.

Regarding remedial classes, Nieves says, “We've been given a charge to accelerate how students develop college-ready skills, so we've been working on that.” A new law (PA 12-40) outlines how this is to be done, including better teacher training, redesigning 12th grade math and English courses to minimize the need for remediation, and giving more intensive help to incoming college students in order to limit remedial classes to one semester. (One-fifth of incoming CSU students are also placed in remedial classes.) The changes must be in place by the fall of 2014.

“The opportunity to work more closely with the state university system is a positive; we want to be successful in making our state competitive, in a global economy, which means preparing people for the workforce, preparing people to go on for baccalaureate degrees and more. [But] not knowing if we're going to have the resources to do it makes it a complicated issue.”

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