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Mar 06, 2023

Hartford Courant: Terrence Cheng: Don’t waste the chance to invest in what makes CT great: people

Serving more than 85,000 students who come from every one of our 169 municipalities, we are a critical girder of Connecticut’s economy, with an $11 billion annual impact on the state.

By Terrence Cheng
March 5, 2023

I am an immigrant who came here as a toddler. My parents didn’t speak good English, and we didn’t have money. But because of public higher education, I was able to go to college, and it changed my life. My story is not unique, but it speaks to the transformational power of postsecondary education.

Public higher education is rooted in this concept: upward mobility, opportunities for people of all backgrounds to learn, think critically, and ultimately to be productive, contributing members of society.

In Connecticut, the CSCU, or Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, system shoulders this responsibility. Serving more than 85,000 students who come from every one of our 169 municipalities, we are a critical girder of Connecticut’s economy, with an $11 billion annual impact on the state.

Our students come from Connecticut, and an estimated 93 percent of our graduates stay to live and work in Connecticut. No other institution of higher education in our state can say this. Our alumni include the current United States Secretary of Education, two sitting members of Congress, dozens of state legislators and administration officials, and more importantly, tens of thousands of professionals serving every sector of the state’s economy. Without question, we are the state’s primary engine of economic opportunity and workforce development — a system of institutions that are affordable and inclusive, not exclusive — and we are proud of that.

We fear that the governor’s proposed budget does not rise to the level we need to create the nimble, affordable, efficient and effective 21st century system of public higher education that Connecticut truly deserves. If CSCU is to meet the needs of the state, the communities we serve and our students at the highest level, then greater state investment is required.

In January, we released CSCU 2030, a vision for generational investment in our faculty and academic innovation, in our students and how we support them and in the foundational infrastructure that delivers and houses this invaluable work.

Two things have led us to this point. First, our operating funding has been flat since 2007 almost exclusively due to the growth in the state’s fringe benefit costs. When factoring in 44 percent inflation over that period, our operating funding has been significantly compressed. Second, our capital funding program is exhausted, at a time when critical infrastructure related to health and safety, and our academic mission, is failing. For these reasons, we must act soon.

But CSCU 2030 is not just about addressing concerns: it is about taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine and transform higher education for our state. CSCU 2030 will allow us to serve more students, be a better partner to the state, and an even stronger driver of economic opportunity.

Here is what will happen if CSCU 2030 is passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. It will expand the state’s highly successful free community college program, PACT, which currently serves more than 10,000 first-time students. CSCU 2030 will allow us to more than double that number and help improve the state’s pool of talented employees. We also will expand PACT to include state university students studying in fields such as education, nursing, allied health, computer science, engineering, and more. At the universities alone, more than 7,000 students per year will qualify for a tuition and fee-free education.

CSCU 2030 will also invest in student supports and wraparound services. COVID has hurt our students immeasurably, and we must do more to support their mental and emotional health. At the same time, housing insecurity, lack of childcare, transportation and food insecurity are regularly cited as impediments to college persistence. We will provide more resources to help in these critical areas, because all of this has a direct impact on academic achievement.

In New York, researchers found that providing these types of services leveled the playing field between lower-income students and their more affluent peers. We expect these investments to show almost immediate results, decreasing time to degree, while increasing persistence and graduation rates.

Finally, the CSCU 2030 capital project program includes a seven-year investment in our physical and digital infrastructure across all CSCU campuses. Studies show that learning infrastructure and environment have a direct correlation to enrollment, so it is imperative that we adapt state-of-the-art technology and transform the day-to-day world in which our faculty and staff work and our students learn.

One example is Capital Community College. Capital serves students from the most socioeconomically challenged communities in our state, but its campus is wedged into a former department store in a building that is breaking down. This is not right. If our campuses are not configured for optimal learning, then what are we saying to our students?

CSCU 2030 will ensure that key programs like nursing at Capital, already the largest such program in the CSCU system, will be able to consistently serve and stand with the best of its peers. Investing in all our campuses sends a message to our students that they are worthy and second-class to no one.

Without CSCU, thousands of students from backgrounds like mine would not have the chance to go to college and change their lives. Let us not waste this chance to invest in what truly makes Connecticut great: our people. Let us not suffer from a lack of imagination and a deficit mindset when talking about the future of our state; let us have the audacity to dream big and fight hard for what we believe is best and right. Let us back the message of our state leaders who believe in opportunity and access, in equity and inclusion as a strength. CSCU 2030 is a plan that will walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Our incredible faculty and staff are ready to go to the next level, but we can only do it with your support.

Terrence Cheng is president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system.