Connecticut is dealing with some of the most difficult economic problems in its history. That is why cutting state funding for students attending our state's independent colleges and universities makes absolutely no sense.
Yet that is exactly what the state's proposed budget would accomplish. It aims to slash the Connecticut Independent College Student grant program, which provides critical financial assistance to residents attending the state's private colleges. The proposed budget calls for cutting the program by 25 percent in the fiscal year ending in June 2012 and another 50 percent in the next fiscal year. Decreasing the program's allocation so dramatically would result in fewer students being able to attend Connecticut's private colleges. This would have grave consequences for the state's future.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education predicts that during the next two decades, Connecticut will relinquish its title as the nation's wealthiest state and will have a workforce less well-educated than today's. As a result, personal income here is projected to drop by 4 percent. By comparison, between 1980 and 2000, personal income per capita in Connecticut grew by 61 percent. We must take every measure necessary to promote economic development, lest these troubling predictions come to fruition.
We can start by acknowledging higher education's critical role in economic development and by expanding access for all who seek it. And we can recognize the importance of efforts such as the grant program. Last year, 6,121 Connecticut students received state grants with an average award of $3,828. That allocation met only 78 percent of the statewide need. Due to the weakened economy, more students than ever are eligible for need-based aid because of family job loss, decline in investments' value or lower income. Given this increasing financial need, such a dramatic reduction in grant aid would push private higher education out of reach for many Connecticut students.
Let them choose to attend a public institution instead, some might argue. Consider, however, that it costs the state $1,615 per degree awarded at independent colleges compared to approximately $45,238 per degree at public colleges. Expanding enrollments at public institutions would burden the state's budget far beyond any savings realized by cutting the grant program. Students also might opt to pursue cheaper public schools in other states and perpetuate the brain drain that has plagued Connecticut for years. We know that once students leave the state for college, they typically don't return.
We must keep our students in Connecticut and, in the process, ensure our economic vitality. Connecticut's independent colleges play a critical role on both counts. They account for nearly half of the degrees awarded in the state and more than half of the degrees received by minority students. Further, they award more than half of the degrees earned in key economic development areas such as engineering and related technology (70 percent), computer and information science (82 percent) and biological sciences (58 percent). Reducing access to these programs would cripple Connecticut's chances at a quick economic recovery and diminish our competitiveness for years.
A long-term view toward economic recovery calls for an increased investment in higher education and student success, not a decrease. Our lawmakers say they are committed to a passing a budget that creates jobs and helps boost the state's economy. The proposed grant cuts, however, would hamper the career preparation of Connecticut's youth, who are our best solution for pulling us out of the economic doldrums. Our human capital has never been more important. Developing it must remain a priority.
Budgets everywhere are stressed, and reductions must unfortunately be made, but cutting programs designed to address the root of our economic malaise is counterproductive.
Steven H. Kaplan is president of the University of New Haven.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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