Lawmakers must make higher ed a budget priority, encourage competition

Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, presented an academic paper in 1972 entitled: “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?“Lorenz’s insight later became known as the “butterfly effect” – recognizing that small differences in dynamic systems can trigger vast and unexpected results.

I can’t help but think of the “butterfly effect” as I ponder Colorado’s conflicted Constitution and the apparent lack of consideration given to the long- term ramifications of decisions being made in Denver and Washington, D.C. In this scenario, the butterflies are choices made by policy makers who have decided to increase spending over time. Like a police detective in “everyone winds up being “shocked, shocked!” as higher education budgets are cut when the state has no money to cover its growing obligations.

Conservative notions like increasing sentences for criminals, coupled with more liberal ideas like expanding Medicaid, all cost real money. Even ironic concepts, like increasing funding for prison inmate vocational training while cutting traditional education budgets, somehow survive scrutiny.

Budget decisions have substantially changed things for Mesa State College and higher education institutions throughout Colorado. Colleges and universities in Colorado next year will be receiving the same level of state funding we received in 1997 — even though we’re teaching 20,000 more students and inflation has increased by 33 percent.

Even more troubling, for the first time in recent memory prisons will receive a larger percentage of Colorado’s general fund than our entire higher education system. To deal with this sort of dynamic, California’s governor recently announced a proposed constitutional amendment to require that the state spend more on its citizens’ college educations than prisons.

As we all grapple with difficult budget news, some leaders in the state Legislature have suggested it may be time to “defund” public higher education in Colorado, while others say it may be time to close colleges to save money. Unfortunately, these suggestions are most often directed at those institutions not clustered on the Interstate 25 corridor, and such hyperbolic comments do a great deal of damage to our sister institutions’ ability recruit, retain and ultimately graduate students.

These short-sighted statements also come at a time when some believe the cure for higher education woes in Colorado is to demand enhanced accountability from colleges and universities — even amid the steepest decline in state funding in a generation.

I believe Adam Smith had it right: The free market — even in higher education — does more to keep us honest than any government regulation or mandate. Every day, we compete with 14 public colleges and universities; 13 community colleges; three area technical colleges; two local-district community colleges; 102 private accredited Colorado-based institutions; 324 in-state occupational schools and 3,949 accredited online schools. If we’re doing something wrong, we have over 7,000 students and their family members who are not bashful about holding us accountable.

So what can our state’s leaders do to ensure our children and grandchildren have quality options for higher learning, now and for years to come?  Having served in the Legislature, I know it can be tough to balance the state budget when competing interests are fighting for their respective pieces of the pie. I also know what it’s like to make tough decisions, set priorities, and fight for them. As the Legislature reconvenes this week, I’m hopeful legislators in both parties will work to make higher education a priority, rather than a pariah in the budgeting process.

While higher education in Colorado is much, much more than wrangling over dollars and cents, there are real barriers currently in place that prevent local governing boards and college presidents from effectively managing day-to-day operations on our campuses. As state support for higher education continues to dwindle, lawmakers should recognize the highly competitive arena we operate in and free us from all of the extraneous bureaucracy and constraints that keep us from making decisions that serve the best interests of our institutions. Local governing boards at colleges and universities around Colorado are well positioned to make decisions that improve quality, enhance efficiency and ultimately transform the lives of students and families.

I strongly believe that Mesa State College is critical to our shared success in western Colorado, as well as our state, and we are well positioned to succeed in these uncertain times. With the backing of our vast community of alumni, supporters and friends, we will continue to push back against proposals and rhetoric that damage our institution and we will constructively participate in discussions related to the future of higher education in Colorado. I invite people to join us. Colorado’s higher education system is indeed a dynamic system and we all need to be mindful of how the smallest of changes can trigger vast and unexpected results.


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