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Connecticut merges community colleges and four-year system

Mergers and Apprehension
November 22, 2011

Connecticut’s community colleges now share both a governing board and a bad state budget with the Connecticut State University System.

State legislators created the new Board of Regents for Higher Education in July, merging the boards and system offices of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges, Connecticut State's four universities and Charter Oak State College, an online institution.The flagship University of Connecticut will remain separate.

The consolidation will save money and encourage better coordination, say its proponents. But as the plan took shape earlier this year, some community college leaders worried about a loss of autonomy and identity under the new system.

Adding fuel to criticism was an analysis from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), which said the reorganization would not be cost-effective and “ignores the need to maintain a separation of governance between two fundamentally different missions.”

The state’s Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, introduced the board overhaul shortly after taking office in January. He predicted it would face resistance.

“This won't be easy, and certainly there are a lot of people listening to this who believe things are fine just the way they are,” said Malloy, in a written statement “I disagree, and that’s why I'm proposing this overhaul to help put more money toward teaching, and less toward central office and board hierarchy.”

Connecticut’s tax coffers have taken a steep dive in the economic downturn, and the state has slid relative to others in college degree production. For those reasons, Malloy said it’s well past time for the state to create a more efficient, coordinated system that can better track student performance.

Some of the initial fears about the consolidation have faded, observers said. And several leaders of community colleges said their institutions could benefit from better alignment with four-year universities.

Robert A. Kennedy, president of the newly created board, is visiting all 17 campuses to help assuage worries. Kennedy, who formerly led the University of Maine, recently visited Gateway Community College. He reportedly got an earful from students about the impact of budget cuts, but not about the board overhaul.

Gateway’s president, Dorsey L. Kendrick, praised Kennedy for being a good listener. Kendrick said she’s confident the community college will survive the merger with its mission intact.

“People are hopeful” on her campus, she said. “The anxiety is dissipating.”

Cost Cutting

Connecticut has flirted with similar plans in the past, but none of them materialized. As a result, many people at public universities and community colleges were caught off-guard when the state Legislature passed this overhaul.

Some felt that consolidation could be a first step to closing campuses. And while that’s not in the cards for now, the unified board does improve the odds of such a step happening in the future.

The state’s budget woes have contributed to the urgency for a new way of doing business at public institutions. Community colleges, the Connecticut State University System and Charter Oak have all felt the pain, absorbing 8 percent state budget cuts this year, with a 12 percent reduction looming for 2012-13, reports The CT Mirror.

Board consolidation is a trendy idea in some states, particularly when budgets are tight. Louisiana is currently discussing whether to merge its various higher education boards, and a Rhode Island lawmaker recently proposed combining K-12 and higher education boards. (Of course, in some states that have had centralized systems, the economic woes have brought the reverse -- campaigns for more independence for institutions, and to break up system boards.)

Also contributing to the push for consolidation in Connecticut, in all likelihood, was a series of publicized missteps by the Connecticut State University System, most notably raises given to system leaders during the recession. The raises were criticized and eventually scaled back, and David Carter, the system’s chancellor, was ousted last year.

Lawmakers have said the four-year system’s P.R. problems were not the impetus for combining boards.

The push in Connecticut is related to an effort by governors in many states to gain more control over public higher education, said Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with NCHEMS. A combined board gives the governor more direct oversight.

McGuinness co-wrote the center’s critical three-page report about Connecticut’s reorganization in response to a request by Roberta B. Willis, a state representative and chair of the higher education committee. He said board consolidations rarely result in big cost savings, at least not for a long time.

When Malloy announced the plan in February, he said it would save “tens of millions of dollars.” The amount has been revised to $4.3 million in savings due to eliminated positions and other efficiencies.

Even that estimate may be overly optimistic, McGuinness said, because a combined system requires “upfront investment” before it can reap savings, such as new spending to figure out how to track performance and to engage colleges.

“It’s going to take them a lot longer than they ever estimated,” he said.

Michael P. Meotti is executive vice president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education. He formerly headed the state’s Department of Higher Education, which was eliminated and folded into the new board. Meotti doesn’t pull his punches in responding to the NCHEMS report, saying it was riddled with “absolute mischaracterizations” about the legislation that created the board.

For example, he said the bill never claimed that the consolidation would wipe away the system’s financial and completion rate challenges.

“We’re not espousing a specific structural architecture as any magic bullet,” said Meotti. “In any system you have to make good decisions.”

And Meotti challenged the plan’s critics to check back soon to see if cost savings had been achieved.

Connecticut State and the community colleges currently support separate system headquarters and board operations in two office buildings, which are adjacent to each other. Those offices employ roughly 200 people, Meotti said, and about 20 of those positions will be eliminated. For example, the new system will employ just one chief financial officer, among other consolidated jobs.

The estimated savings of $4.3 million won’t fix the new system’s problems, he said, but “you can’t scoff at that amount.”

Pecking Orders?

Meotti and community college leaders said improved coordination between institutions, such as through streamlined transfer options for students, is more important than cutting costs.

Gena Glickman, president of Manchester Community College, the state’s largest two-year college, says Connecticut needs to do a better job of measuring student success and aligning academic programs with the job market. She also said articulation agreements between the state’s community colleges and four-year institutions are a patchwork, created between individual institutions rather than on a systemwide basis.

“The State of Connecticut has to look across higher education,” Glickman said, and determine “whether or not we’re facile enough to meet the needs of each student.”

Christine A. Japely agrees. A professor of English and a transfer adviser at Norwalk Community College, Japely wrote an opinion piece for The CT Mirror in which she said the 12 community colleges have separate and conflicting general education requirements and transfer programs.

“This fragmented and chaotic situation has evolved over time because of too many cooks, too many chiefs, and too many turf battles,” she wrote.

But will community colleges fare well under the new system?

Willis, the legislator who requested the NCHEMS report, voted for the plan. But she said the “jury is still out” on whether the consolidation will preserve the distinctive mission of community colleges. More work needs to be done, Willis said, particularly the creation of a strategic plan.

“Measuring performance is a challenge. We are handicapped,” she said in an email message. “The first question that needs to be addressed is: what are we trying to achieve? Without that direction, it is impossible to measure our progress.”

The board has yet to fill its 19 slots, nine of which will go to the governor's appointees. Meotti said new regents are getting up to speed while the board’s leadership works on forming a central office. Some of those changes will be announced at a December 20 board meeting.

Meotti promised that community colleges would have their voices heard.

“You have a leadership here that is not interested in pecking orders,” he said.

Glickman buys that argument, and said joining forces with four-year universities could be an advantage. It should help give credibility to sometimes ignored community colleges, and also increase transfer options.

“Students will have more opportunities,” she said. “I think it will help.”

Ed Klonoski, Charter Oak’s president, is also hopeful. He said it will give the online college a chance to expand its offerings across the system. If anything, it means more work for Charter Oak, in a good way.

“I’m not worried about getting lost in the shuffle. I’m worried about getting buried” in new opportunities, Klonoski said.

For his part, Meotti said Connecticut could no longer procrastinate about developing a high-performing statewide system.

"We’ve got a lot of challenges,” he said. “The status quo wasn’t up to it.”

 

 

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