Lawmakers Must Reject Higher Education Austerity Plans

Testimony to the Connecticut Higher Education Committee Legislative Forum, January 30, 2018. 

Hello. I am Louise Williams, Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, and President of the CCSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.  Like others who have spoken I have a number of concerns about this “Students First” plan.  These include: 1) the lack of shared governance in decision making; 2) the fact that it is likely to cost more than it will save; 3) it is a merger on an unprecedented scale, and underestimates the complexity of creating one uniform curriculum out 12; 4) centralization likely will make our system far less flexible in adapting to changing community needs, than a regionalized model; and 4) the plan is not based on sufficient research.

I don’t want to talk about these concerns today.   What I want to point out instead, is that Students First is a mistake because it based on the fundamentally flawed premise that public higher education in Connecticut must be cut at all. President Ojakian argues that his shrinking of the system is necessary because the number of students is declining and there no more money and never will be.  This is the new fiscal reality. We simply must accept it.

I disagree.  This is not a reality.  It is a political decision, which I for one reject. It is a decision (made by Democrats as well as Republicans) to accept a narrative of austerity fed to us by conservative groups like the Yankee and Heartland Institutes.  These groups claim that the only way to help Connecticut is to cut — government spending and taxes.  In almost Orwellian doublespeak, they say cutting leads to growth.  Investment in the future, the use of the collective power of government to improve the lives of the majority of the population is anathema.

It is this austerity thinking that is behind this “Students First” consolidation plan.   And because of it, the plan ignores the creative solutions of nearby states, which are investing in higher education rather than cutting it.  For example, free-tuition can solve the problem of declining student numbers.  A small millionaires tax on businesses desperate for skilled college graduates can pay for the loss of tuition income.

All research proves the value of public higher education, not just for individuals, but for the economy as a whole.  College graduates earn twice as much money as high school graduates. They are happier, healthier, live on average 6 years longer.  Higher education helps reduce inequality.  It allows more residents to contribute to the economy by paying more in taxes, by using less social services.  College graduates are the engine that drives our economy, they are the ones that draw businesses to the state.  They are the ones that make us competitive.  Why do we want to shrink, starve, and centralize what is already an excellent system of public higher education in Connecticut with this plan?

The position lawmakers take on “Students First” is not just a position on the structure of our community colleges.  It is a choice — between the old short-term austerity thinking — or a new commitment to long-term investment in our state.  I urge you to recommend that the Board of Regents go back to the drawing board and to look for a better plan that invests in, rather than closes the doors on a better future for the majority of the people of Connecticut.  Your recommendation most certainly will be noted in the upcoming elections.