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December 12, 2016

CT college tuition breaks a cross-state lure

PHOTO | Julie Cotnoir Asnuntuck Community College student Ezra Bloom works with Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center instructor Tam Nguyen. Bloom is taking advantage of the college's new promotion, which allows Bay State students to pay in-state Connecticut tuition rates.

Westfield, Mass., resident Ezra Bloom is taking a one-year advanced manufacturing certificate program at Asnuntuck Community College this year, and counting on it to land him an in-demand job.

A deciding factor in choosing Enfield-based Asnuntuck over schools in his home state, besides the academics itself, is the tuition break the 31-year-old is getting — an in-state rate of $2,500 per semester instead of an out-of-state rate of $3,500, including both tuition and fees.

Across the border in Massachusetts, Springfield Technical Community College charges about $4,000 a semester for a comparable two-year program. Asnuntuck's in-state tuition “is significantly cheaper, so it's certainly beneficial for me,” Bloom said.

Asnuntuck is one of two Connecticut colleges dangling in-state tuition to out-of-state students in an effort to offset declining enrollments, which is a challenge faced by higher-ed institutions across the state.

Asnuntuck is appealing to Bay State residents, while Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, or WestConn, is wooing students from seven New York state counties. Both are part of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system, which includes 17 state colleges and universities that enroll 92,000 pupils.

So far the strategy appears to be working — although WestConn's policy doesn't take effect until the fall semester of 2017.

Asnuntuck has seen a 34 percent increase in students from Massachusetts this past fall semester — 102 students compared with 76 the semester prior out of a total student body of more than 1,900. That increase is the highest in recent history, said Gennaro DeAngelis, Asnuntuck's interim dean of administration.

At WestConn, as of Nov. 23, with only 20 percent of the total student body applying for the 2017 fall semester so far, 155 applicants from the seven-county New York region are seeking enrollment, compared with 87 this past year. Total undergraduate full-time students number 4,195, said Jay Murray, WestConn's interim associate vice president for enrollment services.

In the face of declining enrollment at some Connecticut colleges — which makes competition for students fierce — Mark E. Ojakian, CSCU president, says the need for creative solutions to filling seats leads naturally to looking for out-of-state students.

“We need to stop thinking of geographic borders as walls, but as commuter patterns,” Ojakian recently wrote in a Hartford Business Journal column.

“We have to start thinking differently because other states are recruiting our students,” added CSCU spokeswoman Maribel La Luz.

National trend

Offering in-state tuition to out-of-state students is not uncommon in the United States, but pressure is intensifying in some parts of the country to adopt or increase the practice, says George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) Association.

“Pressure is growing right now, particularly in New England and the middle West, where you don't have a growing number of traditional-age students and won't for a while,” Pernsteiner said. “In order to sustain their institutions, [educators] have to find students from somewhere.”

In New England, unlike the South or West, enrollment at four-year and two-year colleges has slowed in the past few years, said Andy Carlson, SHEEO's principal policy analyst.

The University of Maine has perhaps the most visible and concerted effort to woo out-of-state students. The approach is different than Connecticut's, but based on similar concepts for comparable reasons, said the university's provost, Jeffrey Hecker.

When examining the changing demographics causing declining enrollments in Maine, the university looked at applicants who chose to go elsewhere, and found 20 percent of students, most from out of state, were going to other public land grant research universities in New England.

“We got to thinking: What could we do about that?” he said.

In the fall 2016 semester, the University of Maine launched its “Flagship Match” program. It provides academically eligible students merit scholarships that lower the net cost of tuition and fees to a level equal to what the student would pay at the flagship university in their home state — a cost that's invariably thousands of dollars cheaper, Hecker said.

UMaine's in-state tuition is about $10,000 a year and its out-of-state tuition is $29,000 a year, he added.

In the first year, UMaine extended the program to all New England states except Rhode Island, and also included Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For the 2017-18 academic year, the program will include Rhode Island, as well as California and Illinois, whose state schools have higher in-state rates, he said.

While neither Asnuntuck's DeAngelis nor WestConn's Murray could provide an exact number of “empty seats,” both say declining enrollments are driving their creative tuition push.

WestConn considers the arrangement a natural fit and had been asking for it for years, Murray said. The difference in the tuition rate is almost $13,000 annually, with in-state tuition at $10,017 and out-of-state tuition at $22,878.

“Westchester and Putnam counties are within 15 miles of the [New York/Connecticut] border, yet the moment students come here, it costs them twice as much as what it costs a student from Danbury. And they consider themselves local,” he said.

Pernsteiner likened Connecticut's situation to Southern Oregon University, which has had a similar long-standing arrangement with nearby counties in California.

“It is not uncommon for community colleges in a lot of places to charge in-state rates particularly for students in abutting districts or states,” Pernsteiner said. “That's part of how they view their mission to serve the community, and if the community crosses state lines, so be it.”

Local factors

WestConn's student population has dropped steadily from 4,750 full-time equivalent undergraduates in 2011 to 4,116 in 2016, Murray said.

“All across the state, high school enrollments are down, and in Connecticut, they're going to be down for the next decade and they're not going to rebound to prior levels,” Murray said. “As enrollment grows, the increased revenue helps facilitate programs for all students on campus.”

In Asnuntuck's “Dare to Cross the Line” program, most of the out-of-state students would have paid about $6,000 annually in tuition, and now will only have to pay about $4,000 annually, DeAngelis said. (Tuition for the advanced manufacturing program is less expensive.)

“Our research showed us students with Massachusetts addresses essentially lived nine miles from campus,” he said. “We wanted to take advantage of the natural geographic circumstances we find ourselves in.”

Asnuntuck's enrollment has fluctuated between 990 and 1,118 students over the past six years, but the goal is to grow those numbers, DeAngelis said.

“Being as close as we are, Massachusetts has always felt like an extension of our service area; it's felt really natural,” he said.

Some state leaders have questioned the tuition adjustments. In one published report, Board of Regent chair Matt Fluery, who is CEO of the Connecticut Science Center, asked whether subsidizing out-of-state students with Connecticut taxpayer money was fair.

But DeAngelis, whose sets enrollment strategy, says the long-term impact is more important, especially as Connecticut faces budget shortfalls in the years ahead.

“It puts us in a much better position than we would be if enrollments were down,” he said of the tuition breaks. “It's not going to make things easy, but it gives us a fighting chance to maintain the academic and student support services we have in place.”

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