State higher-education system not sustainable, director says

The state’s higher-education system is not financially sustainable, says one of the state’s chief educators.

For the past few decades, requirements on how much money the state can collect and what it must spend it on have resulted in dramatic cuts to the state’s colleges and universities, said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also oversees the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

And the next fiscal year is no exception.

As Colorado’s budget for the next fiscal year stands now, the Legislature plans to spend about $519 million on the state’s colleges and universities. While that may seem like a lot, it’s down $187 million from last year and the lowest proposed funding for higher education in nearly a decade.

“The amount of general fund money that’s spent on higher education over the past 20 years has decreased from over 21 percent to less than 8 percent,” Garcia said. “This has happened at a time when enrollment in higher education has grown about 27 percent, so we’re educating far more students, but with far less money.”

The state also offers financial aid to needy students, but that amount, too, declined or remained stagnant in recent years, despite a steady rise in tuition and fees.

For the past two years, the state allocated about $104 million for financial-aid and work-study programs. Because of a need to balance next year’s budget, the Legislature could cut that even further.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver and a member of the Joint Budget Committee, which is expected to introduce the 2011–12 budget sometime next week, said that cut isn’t likely. It is on the JBC’s infamous “ugly list,” a list of possible cuts that no one really wants to do, but could if absolutely necessary.

“We could cut it to zero, but I don’t think that would happen,” Ferrandino said.

For now, at least, Mesa State College expects to see a slight bump in financial aid from the state, from $2.51 million this school year to $2.94 million next year. That’s a 17 percent hike compared to decreases of anywhere from 3 to 17 percent at other four-year state schools.

Mesa State President Tim Foster said the boost makes up for Mesa being shortchanged in aid last year, but it still isn’t enough. Regardless, he hesitates to say anything because “you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Garcia said any decreases in aid to students only adds to their costs and turns more away from attending college, which ultimately adds to everyone’s costs.

“Over the last three years in higher education, the per (student) cut has been about $1,800,” he said. “So, you know what happens? We have to backfill those lost general fund dollars with tuition and fee dollars. The institutions, reluctantly, raise their tuition, and some pretty dramatically.”

Last year, the Legislature approved a law that allows colleges and universities to raise tuition as much as 9 percent each year without state approval. They can go higher if they can justify it to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

That’s partly why lawmakers such as Sen. Rollie Heath are pushing for a ballot measure for a temporary income- and sales-tax increase for K–12 and higher education.

The Boulder Democrat hopes to get a measure on this year’s ballot designed to generate $1.63 billion over three years, but he has gotten little support, including from Garcia’s boss, Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Heath said part of the problem is most Coloradans view higher education as something that benefits only the individual who gets the degree. He argues that’s wrong. A more educated state not only means higher incomes for graduates, but a well-funded education also attracts more businesses to locate here.

“One of the things that has always mystified me about this state is the seeming lack of public support for higher education,” Heath said.  “When I talk to folks, they kind of say, ‘We don’t need to raise money for higher ed. They can do it themselves.’ It just doesn’t seem to be a high priority.”

Reporter Emily Anderson contributed to this report.


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