As support for higher education vouchers gains momentum in the state legislature, CSU President Albert C. Yates addressed concerns he had about the voucher system.
In a letter to the university community, Yates addressed concerns he has after Gov. Bill Owens’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Higher Education adopted new recommendations at its final meeting. The governor created the panel to re-establish the way Colorado colleges are funded.
Higher education vouchers would take money currently given to the universities as general operating funds and put it into individual student accounts. Students could use that money toward tuition to attend the in-state university of their choosing. Should tuition cost more than the maximum total $18,666 allocated to each student, they would pay the difference, which would vary depending on the university they choose. For example, based on a set voucher value, it would cost a student more in out-of-pocket expenses to attend CSU than it would Front Range Community College.
Regarding the way the voucher proposal stands now, Yates pointed out five unresolved issues he hopes will be addressed through legislation.
A centerpiece in the proposal is a 25 percent reduction in community college tuition and an initial-year 5 percent increase in tuition for four-year institutions. Yates argued this will provide more support for community college students and less for the institutions facing tuition increases.
“The proposal as structured pushes low-income students to community college,” Yates said. “While that is an appropriate route for some, it’s not for all.”
“If the overall objective of a voucher system is to open greater access to opportunity at all levels of society, it is important to ask whether ‘tracking’ low-income student into community college is an effective way to meet that objective,” wrote Yates in the letter.
Yates’ second area of contention was the decreasing attention paid by the panel to the unintended consequences of TABOR, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, on higher education.
One of the initial motives behind the voucher idea 18 months ago was to relieve the TABOR burden on higher education. TABOR works by restricting the growth of state and local governments by limiting the funds they have available to provide services. These funds come not only from taxes but also from other sources, such as tuition. Thus, TABOR restricts universities from raising tuition when it might be necessary.
At the panel’s final meeting, Yates said no reference was made to TABOR.
One main supporter of vouchers is the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.
Joan Ringel, a spokesperson for CCHE, explained that because of the way the general fund is set up to allocate funds to higher educations, college and universities have become a sitting duck in the latest budget crisis.
If the voucher system were passed, schools such as CSU and the University of Colorado would become enterprises of the state, releasing them from TABOR restrictions. Becoming an enterprise would allow the university to raise tuition. To be considered an enterprise, the institutions must receive no more than 10 percent direct or indirect subsidies from state funds. Vouchers release the university from TABOR tuition restrictions by putting the money into student accounts instead of granting it directly to the school.
In other words, students would be like a middle-man, a way for the state to get money to the universities in a roundabout way that will allow them to raise tuition.
Moreover, to subsidize the 25 percent tuition decrease at community colleges, tuition at four-year universities will be increased by 5 percent. The proposal makes no reference or accommodation for that impact.
According to Ringel, the panel had two objections with vouchers. One was to find a new funding scheme to help get through tough budget times and the second was to increase higher education access for low-income families.
“We wanted to see if there were ways to increase participation for everyone,” Ringel said.
The fourth concern Yates had was that current models show the cost of implementation will be, at a minimum, $14.4 million, and that amount is expected to be taken out of the general fund and tuition.
The last concern addressed has already sparked debates on CSU’s campus: the idea of a 140-credit cap. After undergraduates have taken 140 credits, they would no longer be eligible for in-state tuition and would have to pay full tuition plus the state voucher value.
“It has not been addressed as of yet, but I will continue to raise concerns,” Yates said. “I have hope that as it goes into legislature, it will be resolved.”
Yates said he has an obligation to show students’ concerns to the legislation.
“I think the state of Colorado needs to do something about the funding of higher education,” Yates said. “My hope is that the Blue Ribbon panel and the legislation seek to address three objectives.”
The three objectives of vouchers were to:
* Create a funding vehicle to allow access for low-income students.
* Create a vehicle that would allow CSU to raise cash funds and exclude it from TABOR restrictions.
* Provide incentives to increase more focus to students by creating constructive and positive competition.