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Connecticut Colleges and Univ. Systems Pres. on college cost-cutting measures: 'our reserves are thin'

The impact of COVID-19 on higher education is escalating. Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System President Mark E. Ojakian joins the On the Move panel to discuss.

Video Transcript

JULIE HYMAN: For many colleges and universities, we're a little more than a month now-- if not more-- into the fall semester, and a lot of different colleges have been handling it differently. Let's talk to the head of one system. Mark Ojakian is president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System. And our own Aarthi Swaminathan is joining us as well. She covers education for us.

Mark, thank you for joining us. You have 17 institutions in the system, 85,000 students. Your institutions are open, you've got lots of different measures in place. First of all, just tell us how it's been going so far. We've seen lots of pictures across the country of a lot of students in tight quarters at parties, at football games, et cetera. What's happening in Connecticut?

MARK E. OJAKIAN: Well, in Connecticut so far, things are going relatively well. We always knew there were going to be cases that would rise, but we did a lot of planning beginning back in March. So we've opened with different modalities for our students. We have dorms open and students living in the dorms. So we are very optimistic that we'll be able to continue through Thanksgiving, when then we will go completely virtually, and then come back later in January. So so far, so good.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Hey, Mark. So I was just looking at some of the documents, and you've projected a 50% drop in reverves for community colleges. And there are some financial difficulties-- you're dealing with retirements, layoffs. So how much cost-cutting have you already had to undertake and what are some of the changes you've made on the management side?

MARK E. OJAKIAN: Well, we've done a lot of cost-cutting in terms of reducing overtime, hiring freezes, taking a look at adjunct professors versus full-time professors. We are engaged in a consolidation effort here in Connecticut for our community colleges. So we've established the Connecticut State Community College, which will be accredited hopefully in 2023 for full operation. So we've made a lot of changes already. That being said, our reserves are thin and we need to do more in terms of salary and benefit costs for all of our employees.

So we have reached out to our collective bargaining partners and asked them to come to the table to try to find a way to sort of mitigate the gap. The enrollments are down. I mean, it's no surprise around the country enrollments are down. And so when you have especially enrollments down at residential institutions and you're losing room and board revenue, it's not surprising that you're going to see the serious financial challenges that we currently have in our system.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Mark, after the pandemic, what does the system look like? Do we really need a campus-based college or university system after we get out of this?

MARK E. OJAKIAN: I think we do, but I think we've learned lessons in how have high flex or hybrid models. Remember, especially at our community colleges, which serve the most vulnerable of our populations-- single mothers, folks out of work-- they need to go to those campuses and be fully engaged in those opportunities. So our consolidation effort is around making sure-- excuse me-- that we have all of the programs available to all of our students and that we're able to provide the services that we need. But clearly, the pandemic has taught us how to do things virtually, and I think that'll be in our best interest going forward.

AARTHI SWAMINATHAN: Hey, Mark, so a lot of different schools are feeling pain differently, right? So who do you think is best positioned to come out of this storm? Do you think that private universities have sort of an edge over community colleges, state colleges?

MARK E. OJAKIAN: No. I don't necessarily think one has an advantage over the other. I mean, everybody is struggling with financial issues. Excuse me. And so I think that as we come out of the pandemic, you're going to see vulnerable institutions having to consider closing or merging. There were vulnerable institutions before this occurred. But I think we're working with our state partners-- with the governor and the legislature-- because public higher education in Connecticut is critical, and it's critical as we try to rebound economically. The governor recently came out with his strategic plan for workforce, and our colleges and universities are the engines that are going to help really start back up our economic development strategies in the future.

JULIE HYMAN: Mark, I am curious, as well, coming out of this if things like community colleges and state universities are going to be a better value proposition for some folks. I mean, is that something that you are going to incorporate into marketing, for example, and really do a push not even just coming out of it, but why not start now with that kind of messaging?

MARK E. OJAKIAN: Well, we've actually started that messaging before the pandemic. And we did an economic analysis of all of our institutions and what the value was not only to the student and their families, but to the state of Connecticut. So that is starting to resonate we have free community college now in Connecticut, and so we've seen I think 4,800 people sign up in the fall to go for free. I would say maybe a third of those already were eligible for full Pell. But the marketing is being incorporated into the value proposition. High quality, good success rates at our universities and colleges. We need to do better, but also the value in terms of tuition and fees is much lower than private institutions. And so we will continue to market that as we move forward.