for a Better

The Cost of the Community College Consolidation

Steve Adair, PhD. Professor, Central Connecticut State University

Connecticut completed the largest merger of public higher education institutions in U.S. history in August 2023 after a prolonged, costly, and contentious transition. The 12 previously independent community colleges merged into one system with 12 campuses (CSCC). CSCC is part of the larger Connecticut State Colleges & Universities (CSCU) system, including the four state universities and Charter Oak College. The new Connecticut State Community College is now the fifth-largest community college in the country.

The former President of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, Mark Ojakian, announced this merger plan in the spring of 20171 over the objections of faculty, staff, and former community college presidents. 

Ojakian envisioned that a single institution would avoid duplicating administrative functions and dramatically reduce costs. He promised the merger would lead to fiscal stability, lower student tuition costs, improved services, and more full-time teaching faculty.

In the initial quantification of the savings, Ojakian projected a net reduction of 163 non-teaching, full-time-equivalent (FTE) staff, with a total annual savings of $27.8 million in 2017 dollars. 

Realizing these savings would prove elusive. 

The original plan sought to complete the merger by the summer of 2019.  The regional accreditor, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), rejected the plan, saying that it would be “too disruptive” for students.  In June 2018, Ojakian revised his plan, extended the completion until August 2023, and recognized that the accreditation of each of the 12 colleges would need to be sustained until the merger was complete.  The savings would be realized over three “phases,” nevertheless, he still forecasted a net reduction of 163 FTE non-teaching positions with $27.8 million in annual savings.2

With the release of the state’s biennium budget last spring, it was clear that the consolidated college was entering its inaugural year in a deep fiscal crisis.  Based on the Appropriations Committee Budget last spring, the CSCU system anticipated a budget shortfall of nearly $109 million for FY 2025, with $95 million attributed to the one community college.

What happened?

Terence Cheng, the CSCU chancellor (Cheng replaced Mark Ojakian in July 2021), warned that the budget for 2025 would lead to widespread layoffs, tuition increases, and devastating cuts in FY 2025 and beyond. These claims were challenged by Jeffrey Beckham, the Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management (OPM), who maintained that the CSCU system was adequately supported by the state and needed to restructure to live within its means.

Mr. Beckham seemed not to catch the irony in his admonishment. 

It is impossible to put a definitive price tag on the consolidation cost using publicly available documents. The organizational plans that served as the basis for the original projections were never publicly released. However, it would be a relatively simple task for the CSCU system office to compare those plans with current staffing levels and sum up the corresponding salaries. The Higher Education Committee in the State Legislature has tried to compel the system to monitor and report on the consolidation cost. Still, the System Office and the Board of Regents have maintained their monopoly over the data necessary to determine the consolidation cost.

Without transparent public data, a basic outline of the underlying problem can be sketched out.

In the graph below, the projected reductions of non-teaching staff in the initial quantification in 2017 and the revised plan in 2018 are represented by the orange and black lines, respectively. The black line data assume that the staffing reduction would be achieved by FY 2025, and the yearly reductions in staff were averaged over the time frame. 

Ben Barnes, the former Chief Financial Officer for CSCU, publicly shared a document showing the number of full-time employees at the community colleges, working in shared services, and working at the system office for the community colleges from 2019 through to an estimate for FY 2024.

The red line represents the total number of Classified, Administrative, and Managerial/Professional full-time employees at the Community Colleges and working for the Community Colleges in Shared Services or at the System Office.  Between 2019 and 2023, the number of full-time, non-faculty staff increased from 1,145 to 1,384.  That is, instead of declining by 163 FTE positions, the number increased by 239. Over the same time frame, the number of full-time faculty members (the blue line) (which includes teaching faculty, librarians, and counselors) decreased from 922 to 831 (with an additional reduction predicted in 2024 to 818.

While these data do not provide a definitive basis for determining the final cost of the consolidation, they do provide substantial evidence that it cost the state of Connecticut many tens of millions of dollars.

Several additional observations and caveats are warranted:

  • We do not have data to compare staffing levels in 2019 with what they had been in 2017.  It is possible that some reductions between 2017 and 2019 partially offset the increases after 2020.
  • The early projections for savings associated with the consolidation were based on reductions in FTE non-faculty staff. At the same time, the data provided by Barnes listed Full-time and Part-time positions.  The graph only presents the data for full-time employees, and the results might appear different if the data were converted into FTE employees. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that the number of FTE, non-faculty staff would appear roughly 10 to 15 percent larger than the number of full-time staff because part-time employees would be averaged into an FTE count.
  • The original consolidation plan pledged to maintain faculty positions while reducing administrative staff. Indeed, President Ojakian often remarked that he hoped to hire additional faculty by reducing the administration cost. In 2019, the ratio of staff to faculty was 1.24 (1,145/922); in 2023, the ratio had risen to 1.66 (1,384/831)—a result completely contrary to what had been intended.
  • The decline in faculty full-time positions over the last four years might be considered a reasonable and necessary response to the sharp drop in community college enrollment.  If so, is it reasonable to suppose that the number of non-faculty staff would also drop accordingly?  Perhaps then, in estimating the consolidation cost, we should not simply compare the changes from 2019 to 2023 but instead compare the number in 2023 with what it would be if the ratio of staff to faculty had remained constant (831*1.24= 1,030).
  • The difference in non-teaching full-time staff for 2023 between what it was and what it would have been if the ratio to teaching faculty stayed the same is 354. Salary and fringe benefits for 354 employees would exceed $50 million for 2023 alone. 

Additional data would be necessary to determine the total cost of the consolidation. Still, the data presented indicate that the consolidation resulted in a sharp increase in non-teaching hiring and spending, which has led to the system’s fiscal crisis.

While the results were dramatically different than what the administration planned, they were not unpredictable.  The CSCU system built much of the administration for the fifth-largest community college in the country while the 12 accredited colleges continued to operate and educate students.  Across the country, there is considerable skepticism that mergers save money.  Lee Gardner, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote in 2017: “Perhaps the most surprising – and possibly unwelcome – lesson is that mergers may not actually save money.”  Over these last years, a deluge of reasoned arguments cast doubt on the system office’s savings projection.

What is to be done? The mistaken forecasts and the mismanagement by the Board of Regents and the system office are real, but it would be irresponsible for the state not to recognize its responsibility.   Governor Lamont endorsed the consolidation plan.  He wrote a letter to our regional accreditor in support of the merger.  Over the years, dozens of faculty and staff sought an opportunity to talk with the Governor to relate their skepticism of the consolidation plan, but all such requests were denied.

Community college remains an engine of opportunity. It serves a population most at risk of being left behind. Governor Lamont is responsible for the consolidation and must take responsibility for the results.


  1. See chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/, p. 137. ↩︎
  2. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/, pp. 45-58. ↩︎

Connect with ABCI

Subscribe to our e-newsletter for the latest updates