Bold bipartisan bill will rework Colorado higher ed funding

DENVER– The Higher Education Flexibility Act passed the Senate last week and is scheduled to make it to the House Monday. It’s a bold bill that would rearrange the relationship between public universities and the government. It would mean greater autonomy for university administrations which, for example, would be free to levy tuition hikes under 9 percent per year. Current higher education funding in low-tax recession-wracked Colorado has become unsustainable. The new bill seeks to buffer universities against a likely $300 million funding cut next year.

CU Boulder

“What we’re doing is empowering colleges and their boards to innovate and take it to a higher level,” said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, on the Senate floor last Friday. Penry is co-sponsoring SB 3 with Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.

After lawmakers added a string of amendments, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, a remarkable achievenment. The bill could keep 28 publicly funded colleges and universities open across the state.

One of the chief concerns among lawmakers was to guard against the possibility that lower-income students would be priced out of an education. Under the amended bill, schools proposing to raise tuition more than 9 percent, would be asked to present a four-year financial and accountability plan specifically outlining how they would retain lower-income students. Plans would be approved by the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

All higher education institutions in the state must present a plan by November that outlines how they will function, what changes they will make, should they received 50 percent of present funding amounts from the state. The bill is written to sunset in five years and allows the legislature to either continue or roll back the increased flexibility.

Colorado University announced March 29 that it would be raising tuition by 9 percent across three of its four campuses. The Colorado Springs campus would see a 7 percent increase.

Both Penry and Morse acknowledged that some schools may see cuts to course offerings, though Morse was not thrilled by the prospect. “The object of the exercise is to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” Morse said.

Schools such as Colorado State University and the University of Colorado system already work with corporate donors to provide endowed chairs and subsidize study programs and departments. Corporate sponsors take an active role in designing curriculum, seeking in effect to train their own workforce.

“We do things like that now and would consider it moving forward. Certain industries look to create their future workforce and are very targeted in what they do,” said a spokesperson for CU Boulder. “It by no means solves larger funding problems.”

“We don’t base academic decisions on what businesses want or need. If that was the case, philosophy and anthropology and dozens of like programs wouldn’t be offered,” he said.

Smaller institutions such as Metropolitan State College of Denver or Arapaho Community College are more likely to face difficult cuts to programs where endowments are not available and corporate dollars flow only to workforce-style programs.

Morse said that in order to most effectively prevent cuts, it would have been nice to see more details about how each school would propose to wean off of state cash and choose which to accept. “It would be nice to be able to say ‘Let’s take Metro’s 25 percent plan and CU’s 75 percent plan because [CU] has more of an ability to make up [the loss of funding]. But we won’t have that level of detail.

“So if we don’t fund metro higher, for example, they are going to lose some of those things and become more of a vocational college and that is not part of the plan.”

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