We must ensure that higher education remains affordable

By Bruce Benson

We engage in a delicate balancing act at the University of Colorado. Coloradans expect their flagship university system to offer the first-rate academics critical to producing a highly educated work force. They expect a CU education to be accessible to all in our state, tuition to remain at manageable levels, and ample financial aid to be available. They expect us to engage in research that improves lives, creates jobs, makes our state healthier and drives Colorado’s economy. They expect us to operate efficiently and to be good stewards of funding.

These are reasonable expectations, and CU delivers. We offer high-quality academics at tuition rates comparable with (and often below) national competitors whose state funding levels are considerably higher than Colorado. We ensure access by internally generating financial aid at CU that has increased from $38 million in 2003 to $117 million in the coming academic year. We engage in research that helps our university contribute $6.3 billion annually to Colorado’s economy and bolsters key sectors such as aerospace, biosciences, health care and renewable and sustainable energy. We do all this with administrative overhead that is 40 percent below national averages.

Yet the balancing act comes when we consider that Colorado ranks an appalling 48 among 50 states in state funding per resident student. Funding for public higher education in our state has declined steadily in recent years. When factoring in the loss of federal stimulus funding, higher education’s total cut for the upcoming fiscal year is $125 million; CU’s share of that total is $47 million.

It’s not that the governor and legislators don’t appreciate or support the value the university brings. It’s that anemic revenues, combined with competing constitutional mandates, mean that when budgetary push comes to shove, higher education gets shoved. The sad-but-true joke is that Colorado higher education used to be state supported, then became state assisted, and is now quickly heading toward being only state located. The burden of financing a college education has shifted from the state to the student.

Although declining state funding is placing a greater burden on students and their families, we have to keep a CU education in reach for middle-class families who are most affected by rising costs. So what are we doing to be sure CU and higher education remains vital and affordable to our state and its citizens?

We are helping ourselves by attracting private support. We have instituted better business practices, and streamlined bureaucracy, which has improved our efficiency. We have expanded partnerships with business and with colleague institutions. We attract the kinds of research that infuses mostly federal money into Colorado’s economy while also improving lives.

We recently announced the public phase of Creating Futures, our $1.5 billion fundraising campaign. Private funding will allow us to add value across our four campuses in key areas such as scholarships, faculty and program enhancements, facilities and privately funded research. We are encouraged that even in a down economy, the past five years have been our best fundraising years ever. It speaks well to the confidence donors have in the CU Foundation and the university. But 98 percent of contributions are earmarked by the donor and cannot be diverted to our greatest area of need, operations (compensation, utilities, technology, etc.), which are paid for by state funding and tuition.

While declines in state funding drive increases in tuition, a CU education remains reasonably priced. We fully understand the economic pressures facing our students and their families, particularly during the recession. But consider the example of California as illustrative. Despite considerable outcry over California’s declining per student funding, it is still more than double Colorado’s $2,800 annually. At the same time, tuition and fees at the University of California are higher than at CU-Boulder.

Tuition is certainly an expense, but we ask our students and their families to consider that it is also an investment, one that pays considerable dividends throughout a lifetime. College graduates earn more, have greater opportunities, contribute more to communities and society, and are generally healthier and happier. Additionally, unemployment is about 5 percent for college graduates; it ranges up to 15 percent for those who didn’t finish high school or never attended college.

We have to make certain CU remains a good investment for our students and state. The balancing act is challenging, but it is critical that we do our part to ensure that we meet Coloradans’ expectations and to provide value to our state. Our shared success depends upon it.

Bruce D. Benson is president of the University of Colorado.


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