Higher Education is ailing.
The state’s budget is declining, causing the state to cut funding for higher education, and TABOR, the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, squeezes tight budgets even tighter.
The state is trying to come up with ways of getting more money to higher education. One solution, as presented by Gov. Bill Owens’ Blue Ribbon Panel on Higher Education, is a voucher system. Vouchers would take money the state gives to the university’s general fund and place it into individual student accounts. Students would then use the money at a college of their choice.
This voucher system would cost students more to attend CSU than a state community college because the students would receive the same amount for a voucher, but the student would be responsible for making up the difference to attend CSU.
This voucher system would allow state colleges to become a state enterprise, which would exempt them from TABOR restrictions. Being free from TABOR would allow schools like CSU to raise tuition. Raising tuition would bring in more money to the university and help remedy funding problems caused by budget cuts from the state.
The goals of this voucher system are as follows:
A) to help ease the budget crunch by allowing tuition to be raised; B) attain a higher level of diversity by allowing more lower-income students to attend flagship schools like CSU and University of Colorado-Boulder; and C) create more competition among all the schools to reach higher enrollment.
Vouchers might help with budget issues, but increasing tuition isn’t the best way to get more people enrolled at CSU, and money raised from enrollment is how the school receives a lot of its money. Higher tuition might turn off bright prospects, especially in an economy where people are cutting back.
In addition, a student getting a set amount of money through his or her voucher would have enough money to pay for an entire education at a community college, which might deter people from coming here. Why pay more to go here when you can a completely free education at a smaller school?
The voucher system could help smaller colleges, but CSU and CU would probably lose students and the money they bring with them.
The other goal, to allow more low-income student prospects to have an opportunity to attend college, is a noble idea that could, in theory, be accomplished. Low-income students would receive more money than they would by being purely subsidized.
But it probably won’t change CSU’s demographics enough. Lower-income students would probably choose a community college because the cost of education will almost be entirely free for them there. They would have to pay more to attend four years here at CSU.
Finally, vouchers would cause the large universities to use a lot of money and resources trying to entice more students to attend one school over the others. Big universities would already be fighting an uphill battle with the smaller schools because those would be cheaper, and it would cause all schools to use resources to attract students. More money would have to go in advertising and making the campuses more aesthetically appealing to convince students to attend.
This might shift the focus from academics to appearance. Schools should focus on educating people, not competing for students.
It is important to look at different ways to fix budget shortfalls, but this voucher system is not the answer.
If eliminating the TABOR amendment’s impact on higher education is the key, then maybe we should look at amending the constitution. The caveat here is that this might take longer than the state is willing to wait.
But if we are to make drastic changes in the way higher education is funded, we need to make sure it is done right.