Connecticut’s Proposed Students First Community College Consolidation Plan
Dear Commons Community,
The Chronicle of Higher Education has a sobering article this morning which reports on the number of states that are moving to consolidate colleges in their public higher education systems. Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin have mulled mergers or have taken recent steps toward them.
While the article questions some of the savings that can be achieved through consolidation, one conclusion of this piece is worth noting:
“Consolidations may not be easy, but they’re easier than trying to manage the grim financial scenarios facing many public colleges and their systems. With the pandemic putting enrollments further in doubt and sucking away state revenues, and therefore state support for higher education, says Thomas L. Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, “COVID-19 could very well accelerate the trend toward making structural changes to these colleges.”
I agree fully with the last sentence about COVID-19’s affect on colleges.
For anyone interested in American higher education, this article (see below in its entirety) is must reading.
More States Are Looking at Consolidating Their Public Colleges. Does It Work?
By Lee Gardner
July 30, 2020
A longtime higher-education buzzword is gathering new buzz: consolidation.
It’s not hard to see the appeal, in the current moment, of combining institutions. Faltering enrollment, shrinking numbers of high-school graduates in the forecast, and feeble state support have compelled public systems — many of them overbuilt for their states’ populations — to explore more, and more ambitious, consolidations. Covid-19 is likely to make those forces even stronger.
Merging underused or expensive institutions seems like a straightforward solution, but it’s rarely simple.
That’s why Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin have mulled mergers or have taken recent steps toward them. The strategy is likely to be considered elsewhere, too. Higher education has an excess-capacity problem, says Ricardo Azziz, chief executive of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a former president of Augusta University, in Georgia, and a co-author of a book on college mergers. College enrollment in the United States is down to 18 million from a peak of 20 million in 2011, and online options have expanded instructional capacity even more since then, Azziz says. While academe doesn’t function like a typical industry, he adds, “every industry that has excess capacity ends up consolidating.”
But “consolidation” isn’t one single process. Its definition can depend on the context. In some cases, like Georgia, it means a wholesale reorganization of the institutions in an existing public system into a smaller number of new ones. In others, like Maine and, potentially, Pennsylvania, consolidations involve merging a few colleges that are part of a larger system. But the strategy can also call for combining institutions under a single accreditation, an approach that is being pursued in Maine but was rejected in Alaska. Or it might be some combination of features, as is being considered in Connecticut.
Mergers may be forged from a strategic vision, or resorted to out of desperation. They are sometimes presented as an alternative to closing campuses, which can seem either unthinkable or reasonable but, in reality, almost never happens. Public colleges are often the economic and cultural lifebloods of their communities, and are sometimes the only postsecondary option for placebound students. And no elected official wants to shut down a campus in his or her jurisdiction.
How do consolidations work in higher education? What is their track record? What can they do, and what are they unlikely to accomplish?
Systems often turn to consolidation to save floundering campuses, or to save money. Both outcomes are possible, but recent history shows that consolidations generally don’t save money in the way people sometimes imagine.
Saving a campus is saving money, in the sense that it preserves a valuable resource for its state. In 2017 the University of Maine at Orono, the system’s flagship, merged with the struggling Machias campus, about 90 miles away, eliminating many leadership positions and taking over back-office functions. Enrollment has continued to slide at Machias — it had only 659 students last fall — but locals still have access to a four-year institution, now with closer ties to the state’s public research university.
In Pennsylvania, five of the 14 four-year campuses that make up the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education were in dire financial straits even before the pandemic, due to a decade of slumping enrollment — a nearly 20-percent drop systemwide from 2010 to 2019. In mid-July, Daniel Greenstein, the system’s chancellor, announced that it would explore merging six campuses into three pairs.
The system can’t close institutions, Greenstein says, but it also can’t continue to support 14 autonomous universities: “Financially, we know where that takes us.” He hopes that the combined universities can leverage scale and new strategic approaches to grow, not continue to shrink. For example, two of the campuses would develop online education programs for learners statewide.
Several of Connecticut’s 12 community colleges are also on the brink of unsustainability, says Mark E. Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, and if nothing is done, the system might have to close institutions. In 2017, Ojakian introduced a plan to merge all of the community colleges into one institution, with one accreditation. It’s much better to streamline and find efficiencies, he says, than to limit access for students by shuttering campuses.
Centralized purchasing and office functions may shave off some expenses, but there are still two sets of grounds to landscape.
But consolidating colleges doesn’t save much money in itself. Combined campuses don’t need two presidents, two provosts, or two chief financial officers, and cutting a number of top administrative salaries every year can add up. But two campuses still need professors to teach, administrators to keep offices running, and custodians to clean. Centralized purchasing and office functions may shave off some expenses, but there are still two sets of grounds to landscape, buildings to stock and maintain, and energy grids to run.
The University System of Georgia was not in financial trouble when it merged its campuses, though it did so, in part, to take advantage of economies of scale, and to make its operations more efficient, says John Fuchko III, vice chancellor for organizational effectiveness, who oversaw the system’s last three consolidations.
While savings from redundant leadership positions that were eliminated across the system amount to about $30 million a year, that’s only about 1 percent of the system’s annual operating budget of $2.3 billion for the 2021 fiscal year.
But the millions saved did make a difference at the campus level, Fuchko says, because merged institutions reinvested that money in their operations. The new Kennesaw State University, which merged with Southern Polytechnic State University in 2015 and kept the Kennesaw name, spent more than $6 million of its consolidation savings on additional professors and advisers. It’s not that resources have increased, Fuchko says, “it’s how they’re being used where you see a difference.”
Georgia cited higher educational attainment and improved access among the guiding principles for its consolidations, and early results indicate the effort may be succeeding. A 2019 study by Lauren Russell, who is now at the University of Pennsylvania, found that consolidation had increased student retention by 1.7 percent overall and had raised the four-year graduation rate for students seeking bachelor’s degrees by 4 percent. Studying institutional data, Russell concluded that “increased spending on academic support (advising), made possible by economies of scale in student services, are likely responsible for the gains.”
The course of the consolidation plan for the Connecticut community colleges shows that merging campuses may not always be straightforward or smooth, even when student success is invoked.
The Connecticut plan was hatched, in part, to prevent campuses from closing, but its emphasis on improving education is right there in its name: Students First. It calls for combining all 12 campuses into a single institution of 80,000 students with a single accreditation, and making academic offerings and practices more consistent across the colleges. The combined campuses would share a general-education curriculum, use guided academic pathways to keep students on track, and make it easier for students to take classes across institutions, Ojakian says. “It’s going to allow us to significantly improve our student-retention rates, our student-completion rates, and, equally as important, our equity considerations,” he says. Improved retention and student success should help enrollment, which would make the campuses more financially viable.
But the plan has faced setbacks and opposition. The system presented the plan to the New England Commission of Higher Education for approval in 2019, with an eye toward rolling it out in 2023. The commission, which accredits colleges, responded by asking for more information about how the new system would function, how its academic programs would be comparable and consistent, whether it had sufficient finances, and other issues. The commission asked the system to follow up in a year. The proposal “seemed a little early,” says Barbara E. Brittingham, who retired as president of the commission in July.
“It’s important to note they did not reject the proposal,” Ojakian says. “They said, ‘We think that, because of the magnitude of this change, you need to sort of slow it down.’” The commission has since asked the system to respond to a series of objections by faculty members at the community colleges and state universities.
Professors worry that consolidation will create a bloated system apparatus and draw resources away from colleges and students.
Like their counterparts elsewhere in higher ed, many of the professors worry that consolidation will create a bloated system apparatus and draw resources away from colleges and students, and that central control of academics won’t improve them.
“How can a system that’s going to be this large support the needs of the students in each of the very different communities?” says Lois D. Aime, director of educational technology at Norwalk Community College. “If you make a one-size-fits-all for everybody, then you’re not serving the needs of the students in each particular community.”
Professors also say that they’ve received mixed messages from the system’s leadership.
Consolidation was initially discussed as a possible solution to financial concerns, but early last year, “all of a sudden we were told it’s not really about money — this is about equity,” says Colena Sesanker, an assistant professor of philosophy at Gateway Community College and vice chair of the Faculty Advisory Committee to the system’s Board of Regents. She remains unconvinced that consolidation will improve equity or student success, and compares aspects of system leaders’ public case for it to “a ShamWoW presentation, where you’re being sold something.”
The professors come by their suspicion of mergers honestly, says Mary Ann Cox. She was vice chancellor of Connecticut’s community-college system in 2012, when Dannel P. Malloy, then the Democratic governor of the state and now the chancellor of the University of Maine system, oversaw an earlier consolidation — combining the state’s community colleges and the four four-year state universities into the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities. (Ojakian was Malloy’s chief of staff at the time.) The new system had been hindered by a string of short-term leaders with troubled tenures before Ojakian took over, in 2015.
Ojakian says the Students First plan will mean more resources for students. The community colleges now have one adviser for every 728 students. “How is that helpful to any student?” he says. The plan is projected eventually to save $23 million a year, which can be reinvested in, among other things, enough advisers to bring that ratio down to one adviser for every 250 students. Faculty members who object to the plan are just “pushing the ‘no’ button,” he says. “There has been not one alternate plan offered to get us where we need to go.”
Consolidations may not be easy, but they’re easier than trying to manage the grim financial scenarios facing many public colleges and their systems. With the pandemic putting enrollments further in doubt and sucking away state revenues, and therefore state support for higher education, says Thomas L. Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, “Covid-19 could very well accelerate the trend toward making structural changes to these colleges.”
Structural change is probably what needs to happen, says Aims C. McGuinness, a senior fellow with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Considering widespread demographic declines and waning state support, he says, “virtually every state has got to think more systemically.”
The deepest and most systematic consolidation is in academic resources, but that option remains underused at public colleges. Rather than offering the same programs on every campus, or competing programs on several campuses, consolidations “allow you to rationalize education across a large number of campuses in a better way,” says Azziz, the former president.
Sharing academic resources across its far-flung, sometimes isolated institutions is of particular interest to the University of Maine system. It is pursuing a single accreditation for its universities in order to give students at smaller campuses better access to a wider range of programs, and to share faculty members, courses, and eventually degrees across campuses. For example, professors at several universities are trying to combine forces to offer a major in geographic information systems.
Greenstein, of the Pennsylvania system, sees academic sharing and cooperation as critical for the future of his institutions, even though they’ve competed with one another for decades. If one university wants to specialize in a particular degree, “others may need to step out of the way to allow them to succeed in that marketplace,” he says. “We can’t let ourselves cannibalize one another.”
Online education has expanded the capacity of colleges to share courses with other institutions, and to serve students far beyond their immediate surroundings. The pandemic has made that capacity more obvious. People are likely to become much more comfortable with online learning, says Azziz. “They’re going to say, ‘Yeah, this sort of sucks in some ways, but wow, I was able to do a lot of stuff at a fraction of the cost.’”
McGuinness thinks public colleges might consider hanging on to hybrid and online learning once the pandemic is over because it will allow them to reach a large number of students throughout even a large state, and to do so more efficiently. There is a considerable downside, though. “That immediately means that probably there are going to be fewer faculty positions,” he says. Because of Covid, that’s already happening.