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Hand turning faucet spouting money from statehouse

The Connecticut governor and some lawmakers are looking to cut off emergency-level funding for higher education as federal pandemic-relief funds dry up. But college leaders say that would have devastating effects.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Michael Burrell and James Brey/Getty Images | Галина Ласаева/Rawpixel | Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress


Public college stakeholders and legislators in Connecticut are at odds over an issue that could soon similarly divide officials elsewhere: Should states step in and fill the budget holes that remain as federal pandemic-relief funds dry up?

In recent years, the budgets for public colleges and universities in the Nutmeg State and across the country have been buttressed by hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic-relief funds. As those monies wither, college administrators and faculty members warn of dire consequences if they aren’t replaced. But Connecticut officials argue that the institutions need to lower their expectations and get used to a nonemergency level of funding that’s more sustainable for the state long term.

It’s the second year in a row that this clash is taking center stage in Connecticut. The state operates under a biennial budget, so cuts for fiscal year 2025 are already penciled in. But roughly 150 college and university administrators, faculty and staff members, and students assembled for a budgetary hearing at the Hartford statehouse last month, and hundreds more have submitted written testimonies seeking to convince legislators to rewrite the 2025 budget and soften the cuts.

Neither the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, which includes four regional universities and the state’s 12 community college campuses, nor the flagship University of Connecticut are asking for a full revival of peak pandemic dollars. However, both are asking for some additions. CSCU is seeking $47.6 million to top off its current $478 million appropriation, and UConn is asking to add $64.3 million to its current $468.1 million.

But Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, and some legislators are standing firm on the original proposal, saying the budget isn’t being cut but rather is returning to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s a fundamental disagreement between higher ed officials and state government leaders across the nation.

“It all comes down to a matter of priorities,” said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “States in New England and the Midwest that are struggling with demographic changes need affordable access points for students in the state—particularly working-class students—and this comes through state investment in public higher education.”

Not all state higher education budgets have depended on COVID relief funds as heavily as Connecticut’s, and therefore not all are seeing as drastic a loss in that realm. But many have made deep tax cuts that will also affect the amount of money that’s available from general state funds. Harnisch predicts that these circumstances will lead to similar conversations about how much state funding is available for higher education institutions in the coming months.

“The institutions have already put forth their ideas for cuts … but the state also has to play their part as well,” he said. “Resources matter for students’ success. The state can’t cut its way to prosperity.”

Shortfalls or Structural Issues?

Although Connecticut’s baseline appropriations for colleges grew by about $44.8 million (or 6 percent) between fiscal years 2023 and 2025, the loss of COVID relief funds in the same time frame outweighs the gain, and in total, the current appropriations for 2025 are about $236.2 million (or 20 percent) shy of where they stood in 2023, but up $330 million (or 53 percent) from 2019.

Lamont, who has become a staunch defender of fiscal guardrails, has not recommended any changes to the higher education budget as it enters midterm review. Instead, his office says the baseline increases reflect historic levels of support even as enrollment numbers are down 19 percent from 2019. The state’s colleges, he said, need to start accounting for expenditures that continue to outrun revenue.

Jeffery Beckham, the governor’s secretary of policy and management, said that when appropriating state and federal relief dollars, the governor’s office did all it could to clarify those were one-time allotments.

“The widespread knowledge and understanding was that once that was over, those funds would be extinguished,” he said. Now, “it’s clear to us … based on the request they continue to have for state support, that they have some structural budget issues there that they are grappling with.”

Rather than looking to the state for additional funds, Beckham believes it’s time for higher education officials to take a serious look at their priorities and make some challenging cuts.

“That’s just how you go about budgeting,” he said. “If the idea is nothing can ever be cut, then, yes, I get the point that we can’t do it without more money. But I don’t know why nothing can ever be cut. If you’re a dynamic organization with a changing market and changing needs and demands, I think you have to be flexible.”

College and university stakeholders disagree. They say COVID relief funds were a temporary bandage for a historically inadequate budget. If the state can’t find general funds to take the place of dried-up relief dollars, institutions will be forced to increase class sizes, defer maintenance projects, cut programs and freeze hiring.

“We see things very differently,” said Terrence Cheng, chancellor of the CSCU system. “If you look at the history of our budget, it has grown, but at a far shorter pace than inflation or the compounding factors of state bargain contracts and other situations that have impacted us.”

If it were possible to use federal funds in the intended fashion as a one-time grant, CSCU would have done so, but COVID was a black swan event, Cheng added. “The [American Rescue Plan Act] funds were used to basically keep the operation moving forward with the massive enrollment hit … Without that infusion of funding, we would’ve been literally shuttering campuses.”

He also noted that the system has already taken “difficult steps” to account for the upcoming loss of state dollars. Its institutions have cut hundreds of part-time staff positions, numerous departments have reduced their program or course offerings, and the Board of Regents approved a 5 percent tuition increase systemwide, all to account for a $26 million deficit in the current, 2023–24 fiscal year and to prepare for a $140 million deficit in the year ahead.

“It’s been very challenging and painful. But we have been able to close over $100 million of that $140 million budget gap,” Cheng said. The additional funds would cover the remaining deficit and help colleges avoid making further cuts, any more of which would be devastating, he said.

Faculty Fears

“I don’t think people realize that we needed money before the pandemic happened,” said Louise Williams, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University and president of the Connecticut State University AAUP chapter. “I can tell you that we do feel the cuts on the campus. We’ve been feeling them even before the COVID pandemic … to reduce the amount of money even further is really going to harm the system to the extent that it may not be able to recover.”

Anna Malavisi, an assistant professor of philosophy at Western Connecticut State University, which has seen the largest enrollment declines and budget cuts, said she views the governor’s budgetary logic as “dangerous” for liberal arts programs.

Western has already terminated its philosophy major, let go all adjunct faculty in the department and reduced the number of courses offered per term from 15 to five. Malavisi worries there will likely be more cuts to come.

“That’s the shortsightedness that we’re seeing from the state government, and sometimes within our system’s higher administration as well,” she said. “Problems like climate change and racism are not solved by professional skills. They need much deeper thought, challenging assumptions, different ideas and an ethical dimension.”

But concerns exist among professors in high-demand, skills-based departments, too.

Mary Mattheis, a biology instructor at Gateway Community College, said that due to budget restrictions her campus has already cut the number of human anatomy and physiology courses it offers each semester. The class is a mandatory prerequisite for any student that wants to study health sciences, and the cuts are creating a backlog of potential nurses who can’t start R.N. programs because they can’t secure a seat in anatomy first.

“It’s only going to get worse from here on out” if the state doesn’t deliver additional funds, she said. “We’re being asked to increase our enrollment and help fix the shortage of nurses, but how do we do that when we don’t really have sections to offer to students to enroll in?”

Mixed Legislative Views

Some Democratic legislators have also expressed frustration with the current budget, asking how the universities can continue supporting students’ needs without the proper funding.

Senator Gary Winfield, chief deputy majority leader and vice chair of the education committee, said the current budget for higher education is inadequate. While the legislature can’t “blow up” its fiscal guardrails, he said, it should consider modifying them.

“This is about making sure we have a public system of higher education that actually works to provide the opportunities that we say it does,” he said. “What we get in return as a state is an educated workforce.”

Winfield believes higher education officials should be seeking even more money from the state.

“They’re not asking for what they really need. And I think that’s a terrible thing,” he said. “I don’t want you to be a good neighbor, or playing a game, or good at politics, I want you to educate our children. And I want you to tell me what you need, whether I can get it for you or not.”

Republican lawmakers are generally siding with the governor.

Representative Joe Hoxha, the senior Republican on the subcommittee for higher education appropriations, said he would be open to providing additional funds for higher education, but only if the Legislature is willing to pull funds from another bucket—and that is challenging to do when there are so many competing issues on the table.

“Any additional money on top of what’s already in the budget would mean that we’re getting close to or potentially breaking the fiscal guardrails, which, for me, as a conservative Republican, that’s nonnegotiable,” he said.

With Democrats holding a majority in both chambers, Winfield believes his colleagues will amend the higher education budget before the session ends in early May.

“I can’t say for sure where we wind up,” he said. “But I do believe that we are in a much better place than we were if you went back just two or three months ago.”

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