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Feb 23, 2024

Hartford Courant: CT state college and university chancellor: Will we stifle workforce growth and economic future?

It is a simple question: Are the next generation of teachers, nurses, healthcare professionals and manufacturers worth investing in or will we stifle the growth of Connecticut’s workforce and economic future?

by Terrence Cheng

It is a simple question: Are the next generation of teachers, nurses, healthcare professionals and manufacturers worth investing in or will we stifle the growth of Connecticut’s workforce and economic future?

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, or, CSCU, is facing a $47.6 million shortfall in fiscal year 2025. Public and private colleges and universities across the nation are grappling with changes in enrollment and revenue challenges. While these challenges are not unique to U.S. colleges, the solutions each state implements to overcome these difficulties must be.

Our deficit — if unaddressed — will have a catastrophic impact on Connecticut’s ability to invest in the academic successes and career aspirations of current and prospective students; it will also negatively affect efforts to attract and retain world-class faculty and personnel; and prevent us from making critical improvements to our campuses and buildings. These core attributes are integral to the ongoing achievements of our students, faculty, staff, system and institutions.

Over the past few months, we have heard from students, faculty and staff at our four regional state universities, CT State Community College’s 12 campuses, and Charter Oak State College about how the steps we have taken to close our budget deficit — including $100 million in spending reductions and a painful tuition increase — have negatively affected their overall academic experience and outcomes. These spending reductions have resulted in larger class sizes, reduced services and a consolidation of key programs, which has a detrimental impact on our students’ ability to thrive in their studies and eventual career.

Research shows that the returns to investing in higher education are substantial. The economic return to the average CSCU graduate with a bachelor’s degree exceeds $1 million over a 40-year career, but few consider the non-economic benefits such as more thoughtful citizens, better public schools, and healthier individuals and communities. Fewer still consider the public economic benefits such as higher tax revenues, increased worker productivity, and lower public expenditures for health, social service, law enforcement and correctional spending.

Our universities and colleges have an $11 billion annual impact on the state’s economy and play an integral role in the state’s success and ability to balance its operating budget. Now it is time for the state to help further support our students and their futures.

Ninety-six percent of CSCU students are from Connecticut. Our students come from Connecticut, are educated and trained in Connecticut, and stay to live and work in Connecticut. We are proud to be an inclusive system of institutions, the most affordable in the state, that serves students who would not be served otherwise.

CSCU students look like the real world because they come from the real world. From the corners of our state to our largest cities and towns, they proudly represent every one of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities. Diversity is our strength — diversity of thought, culture, lived experiences and backgrounds. Our faculty and staff are second to none and are committed to doing everything they can to help our students succeed. We lift up our students and help them pursue the highest quality​ and most affordable education in Connecticut that will change careers and lives for generations to come.

That is why it is critical we all work together to implement a solution that puts our students first.

Over the past few years, we have made critical investments in our system by building partnerships with healthcare providers and higher ed institutions, supporting community colleges in creating workforce development programs with leaders in manufacturing, and have launched training initiatives for students in high-demand healthcare positions.

Our colleges and universities are key economic drivers for Connecticut, helping to meet the state’s needs. In spring 2023, CSCU graduated more than 8,700 students, many with degrees in high demand fields such as healthcare, education, manufacturing and business. Including noncredit programs, an estimated total of more than 12,000 credentials were conferred.

In spring 2023, CSCU graduated 1,721 students in health professions and related clinical sciences; 1,648 in business, management, marketing, and related support services; 946 in education; 670 in psychology; 568 in advanced manufacturing; 384 in public administration and social service professions and 299 in engineering technologies/technicians.

Through additional funding, this number will only grow, and we can continue to increase the number of workers we educate, train and graduate to meet Connecticut’s workforce shortage.

Our students are part of Connecticut’s growth story and have gone on to achieve remarkable milestones and accomplishments: Rhodes Scholars, Fulbright Scholars, state legislators, members of Congress, professional athletes, governors, writers, teachers and school administrators, corporate leaders, and leading healthcare providers and manufacturers.

If we fail to invest in our students, we will miss this opportunity to foster the next generation of leaders, creators and innovators.

Gov. Ned Lamont has challenged businesses and aspiring leaders to “Make It Here.” Let’s help our students do just that by making critical investments in their education and career while addressing the state’s workforce shortages in the healthcare, teaching and manufacturing sectors.

Terrence Cheng is chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.