Bill boosts higher ed spending, with strings

DENVER — A measure to boost funding for colleges and universities and cap tuition increases is designed to reverse an alarming trend in the cost of higher education, Senate Democrats said this week.

That’s why it’s the Democrats’ first bill of the 2014 session, said newly minted Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

Normally, this issue is dealt with through the Legislature’s annual budgeting process, but Carroll said it needed to be highlighted better this time around.

“If you just increased the funding without having the tuition accountability that goes with it ... how do we know it’s going to go toward the things that we actually need?” she said. “They’re an honest part of the same conversation. If you want to understand why tuition has been going up so much, you need to understand how we do or don’t fund higher ed at the state level.”

The bill, SB1, would allocate more than $100 million to the state’s 15 institutions of higher learning, which represents a 15.5 percent increase over what they get now. About $40 million of that money would go toward need-based and merit scholarship programs, constituting a 42 percent increase in financial aid that the governor’s office called the largest in Colorado’s history.

The increase, also called for in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget request to the Legislature last fall, includes a 6 percent cap on year-to-year tuition increases.

Current law caps that at 9 percent, but that law allows the universities to seek a waiver from the Colorado Department of Higher Education to go above the cap. Nine of the schools that have their own governing boards, including Colorado Mesa University, have that waiver, but not all of them have exceeded the cap. The bill would allow colleges and universities to get the waiver and hike tuition above the cap.

Over the past five years, the 15 schools have raised tuition for in-state students anywhere from 22 to 65 percent. During that same time, those schools have seen steady declines in the amount of funding they’ve received from the state, to the tune of millions of dollars.

CMU’s tuition rate has increased by about 41 percent during those five years, according to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, but the school increased in-state tuition and fees by just 4.9 percent this year.

Carroll and other Democratic senators say their measure is intended to reverse an alarming trend. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we’re at risk of pricing out an entire generation,” said Carroll, adding that another bill is to be introduced that would cap fees, too. “This is the most aggressive thing we’ve done in my entire time here to try to reverse that trend.”

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.


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