Closing minds to save money
In the middle of Colorado’s budget quagmire, state officials have been tossing out a multitude of ideas aimed at rescuing state finances from sinking in the recessionary quicksand.
That’s good. The more ideas put forth, the more likely reasonable and creative solutions will be found. But that doesn’t mean all ideas are good ones.
One particularly odious idea was batted about earlier this month during the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee hearing on higher education — closing small colleges in the state.
“I think we need to close two or three four-year institutions,” state Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said during the meeting, according to In Denver Times. Other lawmakers also discussed the idea. So have some commentators writing about higher education.
But there are a number of problems with that notion, beginning with the potential cost savings.
Romer apparently didn’t name particular institutions that he thinks should be closed, but at least one writer suggested those on the Western Slope might be targeted because this area has less political clout than the Front Range.
If the state opted to close the three four-year colleges in western Colorado — Mesa State, Western State and Fort Lewis — it could theoretically save $40 million in state general funds annually.
But this year, Colorado cut more than $220 million in general fund money going to higher education, and backfilled that with federal stimulus funds so that colleges and universities didn’t actually see such a large cut. However, the federal stimulus money won’t be available much longer. If the state is to make up the difference, it will have to close many more than three colleges for a savings of $40 million. To achieve even $100 million in savings, it would have to close numerous four-year and community colleges, on the Front Range as well as in rural Colorado.
And the theoretical savings don’t account for the fact that many of the students currently enrolled at colleges to be closed would likely enroll in other public colleges and universities in Colorado. That would require more faculty, more facilities and more state funding for those institutions.
There would also be additional costs for the state, such as maintenance of the facilities at closed institutions.
Also, there are critical costs to the communities. In places such as Durango, Gunnison and Grand Junction, local colleges are major employers as well as cultural assets. In towns from Sterling to Rangely, community colleges are equally important.
What would happen to the local economies, not to mention state income tax and sales tax revenue, if colleges in these communities were to be closed?
Moreover, state leaders in both parties have repeatedly proclaimed the importance of higher education — both at four-year colleges and universities and at two-year community colleges — in helping this state and nation compete in the 21st century.
Colorado has one of the best-educated populations in the country. But that status will be seriously threatened if access to higher education in many areas is limited due to the closure of local colleges.
To its credit, the JBC hasn’t endorsed the closure call. All Coloradans should hope it never does. Higher education has already suffered significant cuts during this recession. Closing colleges would signify Colorado also is willing to accept more closed minds.