Connecticut's public colleges and universities have walked on the cutting edge of the fiscal razor for years.
Forced to frequently increase fees and tuition to offset declining state aid, higher education faces a new threat from the coronavirus, potentially worse than the initial surge that closed campuses last spring.
Simply put, what happens if students decide that it is cheaper, or healthier, to learn remotely, even after the pandemic?
Even a small change in attitudes that undermines 10% or 20% of tariff revenues could put systems already in fiscal jeopardy in grave danger.
The pandemic "really exposes the Achilles heel of how we budget for higher education," said Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, who co-chairs the Legislature's Higher Education and Employment Promotion Committee. "COVID has aggravated a problem that already existed."
"We are in uncharted waters," said Richard J. Balducci, former Speaker of the House and chairman of the finance committee for the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees the state university and community college systems. "We've never had a year like 2020. It's scary and most people freak out when they don't know what to expect."
Former state budget director Ben Barnes, who is now the CFO of the merged public university system, warned in a December memo that students had already started asking about breaking housing commitments this spring.
"It is unknown whether the pandemic will leave lasting changes in student preferences and behavior that will delay this recovery," he wrote.
The pandemic significantly reduces university budgets
Everything changed in state colleges and universities shortly after the onset of the pandemic last March, as campuses were largely closed and all classes were put online.
Higher education units began to lose cash while reimbursing students for millions of dollars in room fees and meal plans.
Before the pandemic, state universities generally filled 80% to 85% of dormitory capacity. Hoping to hit 76% this fall, they approached 53%, Barnes said.
The entire state community college system, which is more than $ 60 million in debt so far this fiscal year, must raise at least $ 30 million in housing and meal fees this spring just to prevent the damage from getting worse.
The Board of Regents recently projected budget deficits of about 6% in each of the next two fiscal years, provided they receive a 2% increase in state aid in the first year and nearly 5% more in the second.
The University of Connecticut faced a gap of $ 76 million this fiscal year, but narrowed it to $ 8 million with hiring freezes, pay cuts, leave days and cost-saving measures, and $ 20 million in federal aid for relief from coronavirus channeled through the state. . They have also warned of the possibility of large budget gaps in the next biennium without significant new state assistance.
But with the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines this month, many state officials assume that the pandemic-related problems facing universities, while considerable, are temporary.
"I'm not that worried," Governor Ned Lamont told the CT Mirror last week.
In-person experience, I think its value is being proven by its absence at this time. "
Although the governor said distance learning will almost certainly expand after the pandemic, "for a core group of students, that residential experience will be key."
Dan Toscano, Chairman of the Board of UConn Trustees said the residential experience continues to be highly valued by students.
"They are desperate to get back together," he said. "The in-person experience, I think its value is being tested by its absent right now. ”
The state's flagship university is also fighting to preserve programs and avoid cuts, Toscano added, so that the campus experience remains engaging.
"Fortunately," he said, "that's not the way we're on."
But Cynthia Stretch, a professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University, said that teachers are already "stretched out. breaking point "and fear what might happen if deficits in the Board of Regents system are closed with cuts.
" I think the faculty is really … concerned about what this is going to mean, " Stretch said. "Is the Board of Regents using the COVID crisis as an excuse for massive restructuring?"
Higher education has little fiscal margin of error
Some note that no major change in student attitudes would be necessary to cause problems for an already fragile higher education funding system.
The Board of Regents expects housing income at the four regional universities to grow nearly 20% over the next two years. If things stay flat, a system already plagued by mounting deficits must find another $ 10 million, according to Barnes' office.
The reason the margins are so narrow not only predates the coronavirus, but dates back decades.
Things really changed in 1995 with the adoption of UConn 2000, a 10-year, billion-dollar loan scheme to rebuild the state's flagship university and its aging and outdated campuses.
Within a few years, legislators also began to increase capital work at state universities and community colleges, also with much fanfare.
But behind all the fuss was an unspoken understanding: The state would fund new dormitories, conference rooms, cafeterias, and parking lots, and pay off all debt on these projects. In return, higher education would be expected to operate each year on less than Connecticut's budget.
In the early 1990s, the state budget provided nearly half of the University of Connecticut's operating income, according to data from UConn's finance office.
For the four regional state universities, it was more than 55%, and for the community colleges, almost two-thirds.
Now, for the three units of higher education, it covers approximately 25%.
But the arrangement is not a uniform bargain.
The state's share of higher education funding has eroded much faster than the campus population of all new dormitories is increasing.
And over the past decade, as state government has been inundated with rapidly rising pension costs, public colleges and universities have relied more on students. and their families to obtain funds.
Tuition and mandatory fees for in-state students at UConn in 2020 were $ 30,484, approximately 52% more than 10 years ago. At state universities, it is closer to 40% for Connecticut residents living on one of the four regional campuses.
The rush to enroll more students, and therefore charge more fees, has created another problem at UConn's main campus, which is located within Haddad's hometown of Mansfield. Local leaders have increasingly complained about the increase in absentee homeowners and poorly maintained private homes being offered to students at exorbitant prices, he said.
But while the housing market has drifted away from the University of Connecticut, Haddad said he understands the university's situation as state aid continues to decline.
"COVID shows up and he just puts all of this on steroids," he added.
Are student attitudes about campus life changing?
And what happens, some officials wonder, if revenue from tuition and fees just won't grow in the future like they did before the coronavirus?
UConn can find out through of the latest gem on its main campus.
A four-story, 191,000-square-foot Student Recreation Center opened in August 2019, complete with an outdoor adventure center, eight-lane pool, four-court gymnasium, a 56-foot-high climbing wall, racquetball courts, and fitness suites, at a cost of $ 125 million.
To pay for the project, UConn hoped, before the pandemic, to raise nearly $ 11 million annually in fees.
Due to the pandemic, the approved $ 250 fee for students this fall semester was cut in half.
What happens, Haddad asked, if the recreation center never achieves its specific sponsorship of about 2,500 participating students each day? Would that discourage university officials from making more campus improvements? And would that, in turn, lead more students to learn online and save money?
I believe that legislators are responsible and recognize that colleges and universities are the backbone of the future of the state ”.
Harry Zehner, who spent most of his time at the UConn living on the Storrs campus, moved into an apartment with friends in New Haven and became a traveler in his senior year.
"It's cheaper," he said, "I think if I were a freshman, it would be very different, where I would feel awful not being on campus."
Eastern Connecticut State University student Matthew Driscoll said that if he hadn't needed his job on the Windham campus, he would have studied online this fall from his home in Waterford.
"The question was really… what will I do on campus that will be best for me?" he said.
But many students, even before the pandemic, preferred more than a residential college experience, Haddad noted.
The Mansfield legislator was citing a new book by social scientist Nathan Grawe that warns of slow growth in traditional-age students graduating from high school.
In "Demographics and Demand for Higher Education," published in 2018 by Johns Hopkins University Press, Grawe projected that the number of college-age students would fall by 15% by the mid-2020s.
If states hope to eventually direct some of this group to higher education, it may be through distance education or community colleges.
Even community colleges in Connecticut, which do not have residences, may not be immune to COVID-19 trends.
Barnes said the Board of Regents expected to keep college tuition flat this fall, but it fell 15%.
And while Balducci acknowledged that the pandemic could leave some older students wary of returning to face-to-face classes, community colleges traditionally see strong enrollment during tougher economic times, as displaced workers return to school to expand their skills.
Balducci also noted that legislative leaders recently pledged to support an additional $ 12 million for the community college system to ensure that the debt-free college aid program remains active until at least the next fiscal year.
"I believe that legislators are responsible and recognize that colleges and universities are the backbone of the future of the state," he said.