Planned community college merger rejected by commission

Manchester Community College

HARTFORD  — A regional higher education accreditation organization on Tuesday rejected a plan to consolidate Connecticut’s 12 community colleges into a single institution, putting the system’s future in limbo.

The Commission on Institutions of Higher Education said it was not persuaded that it would be realistic to have a single statewide community college by July 2019 with 12 separate campuses, despite acknowledging the schools currently face significant financial challenges. The system faces a $100 million budget deficit in three years.

“Because of the magnitude for the proposed changes, the proposed timeline, and the limited investment in supporting the changes, the commission is concerned that the potential for a disorderly environment for students is too high,” wrote the association’s chairman, David Angel, in a letter to Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and University System.

Ojakian said the commission’s rejection “severely hampers” the system’s ability to keeping serving its 55,000 community college students.

“Now we’re back at the drawing board to see what we can do, both in the short- and long-term, to keep us from going bankrupt,” he said, adding how there will not be enough money in two years to operate the entire 12-college system. While the commission said the proposed Community College of Connecticut would be eligible to apply for accreditation, Ojakian said the process could take five years with no guarantee of approval.

While Ojakian pledged to keep students “at the forefront of my planning” of what to do next, he predicted that services will continue to decline, classes will become less available, and “students will have to stay in school longer, at more expense to them to complete their education.” He also said “they may find fewer places to go to school,” predicting at least one of the campuses would have to close.

“I’m really fearful that this decision means students will be left behind,” he said.

Ojakian met Tuesday with legislative leaders to ask for more funding. The General Assembly has not yet finalized changes to the second year of the two-year budget approved last year.

Ojakian blames the fiscal challenges facing the community colleges on issues such as scheduled increases in employee salaries and fringe benefits, declining state support, and an unwillingness by the individual colleges to collaborate to cut costs. There has also been a drop in enrollment, due to a declining number of young people.

Besides the community colleges, CSCU includes four state universities and an online college.

The proposed single-institution concept had opposition from some lawmakers, staff and students.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Danielson, praised Tuesday’s rejection, saying the proposal would have “destroyed” the community college system and “made the institutions less responsive to the students and the regions they serve.”

Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, a co-chairman of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee, said no matter where people stood on the consolation, they should be concerned about the future of public higher education in Connecticut.

“Legislators have some deep thinking to do and we must make action to prevent schools from closing or seeing tuition rates skyrocket,” he said. “We have to figure out how to put our entire college system back on solid financial ground.”