The Future of Higher Education in Connecticut

NEJHE presents exclusive articles by New England’s governors on higher education in their states …

Connecticut’s strategy for higher education focuses on one central goal: to increase student success. While other states in New England and beyond are increasing the percentage of adults with degrees, Connecticut’s rate of increase for young adults has dropped to 34th out of 50 states. For a state among the nation’s richest and home to world-class universities, falling behind other states in educational attainment is simply unacceptable. Fortunately, with a new unified Board of Regents soon to assume leadership, we are on our way toward preparing more young adults to thrive in the increasingly competitive world of the 21st century.

For the past 30 years, Connecticut higher education has been led by the Board of Governors for Higher Education, a coordinating agency created with the best of intentions but beset by the realities of limited authority over institutions, entrenched bureaucracies and competing academic hierarchies. Outwardly, the results appear impressive—growth in enrollments and degrees granted, expanded campuses and program offerings, and a well-known reputation for maintaining high academic standards.

Yet at some point along this path, we lost our national ranking as first in educational attainment, outpaced by other states acting more aggressively and with greater foresight in anticipating future economic and demographic challenges. It is imperative that we turn this around now, or else we forever play catch-up. To do so, here are a few of the steps we are taking:

Focus Higher Education Spending on Students and Learning

Studies across the nation and in Connecticut have shown that administrative costs in higher education have been increasing faster than the investment in instruction. For our public colleges to make students the top priority, we need to provide more resources for classroom teaching and instruction. That is the rationale for the consolidation of the governance of Connecticut’s community colleges, Connecticut State Universities, Charter Oak College and the Board of Governors for Higher Education under one Board of Regents effective this July. Under this reorganization, each system will retain its distinct mission and flexibility. All, however, will be governed by one board with one central chief executive officer, saving millions in administrative overhead that can be applied directly to classroom instruction and student services.

Create Student-Friendly Pathways

Students who attend one of our four Connecticut State Universities, 12 community colleges and the external-degree granting Charter Oak State College are most in need of more student- friendly pathways to overcome the challenges that prevent them from graduating. Studies show that a surprising number are moving across the two larger systems—our Connecticut State Universities and the community colleges—and not just in traditional transfer patterns. Rather, they are taking classes in each system concurrently. An examination of Connecticut public high school graduates of the Class of 2004 reveals that between then and now, more than one-third who enrolled at a CSU campus also took classes at a community college while they pursued an undergraduate degree. While an estimated 40% of these students were transfer students, some 60% had periods of overlapping enrollment—a pattern that appears to better fit their needs.

Simply put, many students are changing the way they attend college, disregarding traditional notions of two-year and four-year educations. Their increasing mobility demands the efficient transfer of credits and stronger partnerships between two-year colleges and four-year universities. The Board of Regents, with its combined governance of our community colleges and Connecticut State Universities, is the most logical means of making our system as student-friendly as possible.

Keep Student Costs Down

Like other states, Connecticut is experiencing the pain of the national recession and the historic challenge of closing a $3.5 billion budget deficit. For those reasons, our state budget demands shared sacrifice by all across state government as well as the private sector and taxpayers. Higher education is not exempt, yet our budget supports our public colleges and universities in a manner resulting in significantly lower tuition increases this year. Tuition across all Connecticut public colleges and universities will rise next fall no more than 2.5% over 2010-11, in keeping with my request that campuses not raise student costs beyond the inflation rate. At the bottom line, we must maintain our commitment to making college affordable for all even in difficult budget times or we run the risk of eating away at our long-term economic and fiscal strength.

Broaden Understanding that Increasing the Number of College Graduates Is Important for All

If the global economy demands greater educational attainment, we all need to understand that increasing the number of college graduates is essential. The old “sink or swim” mentality about college cannot work, and everyone has a part to play in fostering success. Higher education institutions must fight their dropout challenge with the same commitment that we expect from our high schools in reducing the high school dropout rate. Students must recognize that education is challenging and requires a lot of work outside the classroom, but it offers great rewards to those who succeed. Families must support their children’s college-going plans starting in middle school and ensure that their children succeed in the courses that get a high school graduate ready for college on day one. Employers also have an important role in encouraging their employees to join the increasing ranks of adults returning to higher education later in life.

Connecticut’s new Board of Regents is uniquely positioned to build public understanding of this fundamental truth. Its first responsibility is to develop a strategic plan with public and stakeholder participation to increase Connecticut’s educational attainment. With strong leadership, creativity, and resolve that maintaining the status quo is no longer an option, I firmly believe Connecticut’s new Board of Regents will return our state’s higher education system to among the nation’s best.

Dannel P. Malloy is serving his first term as Connecticut’s governor.

 

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