Are efforts to go green at CSU busting Colorado’s middle class?

 

Johnson Hall on the CSU Fort Collins campus (Photo/Melvin Schlubman, Flickr)

Johnson Hall on the CSU Fort Collins campus (Photo/Melvin Schlubman, Flickr)

 

 

Copyright 2008, The Colorado Independent

Colorado State University’s 138-year-old core mission is to serve Colorado’s working-class families and to offer residents a high-quality, yet affordable, college education. Under the leadership of current President Larry Penley, that appears to be changing.

Built in 1870, CSU was created using federal land and money designated for higher-education facilities designed to teach agriculture, military tactics and mechanical arts. With one of the most respected veterinary schools in the country, the current university has broadened its core; its programs now provide a broad range of studies, from degrees in liberal arts to mechanical engineering.

But, because of a lack of state funding in recent years and a sharp increase in student tuition and mandatory fees, CSU’s core mission is being tested under Penley’s leadership, some observers say. Considering the raw numbers only, the cost to attend CSU has skyrocketed in recent years — a reality based more by design than by accident.

When Penley took over CSU from Al Yates, who retired as president in 2003, resident undergraduate tuition, approved by the Colorado Legislature, has increased 52 percent. Meanwhile, mandatory student fees totaling nearly $1,400 in 2009, approved by the university’s governing board, have increased by a whopping 71 percent. By contrast, during the same period, the Denver-Boulder inflation index has increased 13 percent.

 

Over the course of a several-month-long investigation, The Colorado Independent has determined that since taking the helm, Penley has shifted millions in state funds and tuition dollars away from the academic colleges and library system. Meanwhile, the amount of state funding going to the president’s office has increased as has funding to the university’s athletics department.

The result has been a burgeoning size of the Office of the President, including more than doubling the number of vice presidents to 15, a large-scale PR campaign and the creation of a new system office in Denver. On the other side of the coin, the sons and daughters of Colorado’s middle-class families, who have long been the university’s main clients, are sitting in larger classes taught by fewer tenured professors. In fact, since 2003, the number of credit hours taught by full-time professors has decreased by 19 percent to equal less than half of the total course offerings taught in an academic year.

University officials say the shifts are part of a larger effort to re-brand CSU as a worldwide leader in “green” enviro-friendly research, anchored by hope the amount of private and federal research grants flowing to the school will eventually increase, thus lessening the university’s dependence on unreliable state funding. To that end, officials have employed an aggressive and expensive public relations campaign to change CSU’s perception both in Colorado and around the country.

But the apparent shift of resources away from the undergraduate academic education in favor of a re-branding effort could have long-term consequences on the school’s accessibility to the middle class, and some university professors and state lawmakers are beginning to ask if the school’s core mission to serve Colorado’s working families is being forgotten or ignored.

Despite accolades for some system changes in recent years, questions remain over how much of the money the university generates through private and federal research grants can be spent on improving CSU’s undergraduate academic programs in the future — the same programs that saw reduced funding growth in recent years to help pay for the university’s re-branding effort to attract competitive research grants.

“If you ask is a high-quality and affordable education being compromised, I would say that with a continuation of current priorities the answer is yes,” said CSU political science professor John Straayer, who has been at CSU for nearly 40 years. “Tuition and fees at the moment are in line with peers, so where else does the student go? But the rates are going up fast, and a very large proportion of the revenue is being diverted to noninstructional enterprises.”

University officials defend the tuition and student fee increases by pointing to the rising cost of higher education nationwide and by saying CSU still has market value, evidenced by record freshman enrollment in recent years.

“There is no disagreeing with the fact the cost of an education to Colorado families has gone up,” said CSU Provost Tony Frank. “On average nationally, the percentage of a single-family income that went to a public research university was 8.5 percent, and now it’s closer than 11 percent. There is no doubt the cost of public universities have gone up above inflation while the state support has decreased. And there is no doubt the difference in funding is being made up with tuition.”

But, with the difference being made up largely on the backs of students, the value added to the undergraduate education through increased tuition and mandatory student fees is coming into focus, and some state lawmakers are beginning to ask what the end result will be.

Currently the state’s Joint Budget Committee and Legislature do not consider the cost of mandatory student fees when it determines the annual tuition for Colorado’s public universities. Or in other words, the Legislature approved a $4,424 annual tuition rate for a full-time undergraduate in-state student in 2008 but never looked at the nearly $1,400 in mandatory student fees that CSU officials tack onto the final bill. Admittedly, some JBC members said they had no idea CSU officials had increased mandatory student fees so much in recent years.

“We didn’t want to get bogged down with a few-dollar library fee or fine revenue, for example, but now with fees becoming so large, perhaps we should look at this, because it all looks and means the same to a Colorado family who really cares about ‘what does it cost to send my kid to college in this state?'” said Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Larimer County, a JBC member. “Fees, like textbook costs which we debated this session and others like it, are all a part of that equation … and of course, access is a big concern. We need to start asking ourselves, ‘Are we pricing Colorado kids out of the higher-education market?’ Because that is something we do not want to do.”

Professors and lawmakers aren’t the only ones who are beginning to question the funding shifts Penley is making. After hearing concerns from “many people” about how the university is spending its money, the Associated Students of Colorado State University recently created a task force to determine exactly where the hundreds of millions in student tuition dollars is being spent.

“Yes, it has been a concern of ours,” said Taylor Smoot, CSU’s student body president. “We’re looking at where the funding is going because the students are funding 70 percent of the university operation, and with tuition and student fees going up, we should know where our money is being spent.”

CSU professor Straayer agrees.

“This has been a first-class university for decades with excellence in research, teaching and service,” Straayer said. “And yes, it is important to tell the story as well as push in new directions. The question is one of balance: How much do you charge students? How much do you spend on advertising? How much do you put into your academic foundation? In my judgment, the balance is off.”

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series examining the shifting funds and priorities at Colorado State university.

Read more at CSU’s president triples own budget, strips away cash for academics — the result of a months-long investigation by The Colorado Independent detailing how tax dollars have been shifted away from academic and library programs into mushrooming budgets of central administration and athletics programs.

Read more about CSU working to turn being green into a new revenue stream to supplement unreliable state funding.

Lawmakers and state officials weigh in on the investigation in Reaction on CSU funding shifts range from dismay to dismissive

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