Shared Sacrifice for State Universities

State of the Future

What is important? What are your values?  What do you care about?  How do you figure it out?

We are citizens of Connecticut.  Most of us like it here.  Why? Nice shoreline.  Pretty hills and lakes.  Lots of culture.  Metro North runs mostly on time.  Pretty good schools.  Local government that usually delivers adequate local services.  A state government, that, when compared with others, could be a lot worse.  What are your reasons?

What do we want Connecticut to be?

I work at Southern Connecticut State.  We have over 12 thousand students.  Many of them are the first in their families to go to college.  Most of my students work to get through school, many over 30 hours a week. Southern, and the other states schools and community colleges, offer opportunity.  A huge percentage of state college grads stay in the state and become solid, taxpaying citizens.

These are tough times agreed.  The state budget has a deficit and there are many demands on our tax dollars.  But where do we, as a state, want to be when this long downturn ends?  Do we want to eviscerate state and local programs so much that recovery will be difficult or impossible?

Let me make some observations.  The Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) regularly suggest they want strong colleges to provide well-educated workers for their companies.  At the same time they always argue against tax increases.  How do you square that circle?  You can’t argue you want strong state colleges, then expect no taxes to pay for them.

We are one of the highest per capita income states.  We are considered a rich place.  But the numbers are deceiving and have been for a very long time.  Yes, we have a lot of very wealthy people.  But averages often lie, and the reality is we also have a lot of very poor people.  The average capita income in the major cities, like Hartford and New Haven, is about $14,000 per year.  How are families with that kind of money going to afford college, even if they are bright and capable?

The “We’re the 99 percent” protestors make a point.  The gap between rich and poor has widened.  If you need evidence, take a walk from Yale a couple of blocks down to Newhallville and the gap will smack you in the face.

When I started teaching at Southern in 1985 the state paid about sixty-two percent of the operating budget.  The taxpayers’ share is now down below thirty-eight percent with tuition now making up most of the rest.  That reduces access for many students and financial aid does not provide enough to fill the gap.  Most of my students work one or two jobs to get through school, and still have student loans to repay after graduation.

What can done?  The idea of shared sacrifice is a pretty good place to start.  Businesses, who say they want educated workers, need to contribute to the state universities and community colleges.  Grant-making non-profits need to begin to help, which they have often refused to do claiming they don’t donate to tax-funded institutions.  Wealthy people, who give to many causes, should not forget about the largest sources of educated citizens, the state schools. And yes, tax dollars should again fund a larger percentage of the cost.  Relying on tuition alone will freeze out too many young, smart kids who stand ready to make their life-long contribution to our communities.