Apr 212010
 
Authors: Kirsten Silveira and Jim Sojourner

In an attempt to save Colorado’s crippled and sinking higher education system, state lawmakers unveiled a plan Wednesday that seeks to raise $300 million out of the wallets of parents and students and would give universities greater operational autonomy.

The move is the largest step yet in the journey toward a privatized higher education system in the state, which many have said will greatly hamper Colorado’s ability to educate its populace.

The bipartisan plan, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, looks to help plug the state’s $1.7 billion shortfall next fall. It would give state institutions the flexibility to raise tuition more than the current state-mandated 9 percent cap and would allow university governing boards more control over internal operations.

Colleges and universities would be required under the plan to prove a need for increases.

In return, universities would be required to meet strict graduation and student employment standards and provide ample financial support opportunities for students or face tuition rollbacks. Students would also be given a vote on their respective university’s governing board for matters concerning the budget.

CSU Chancellor Joe Blake said the university system has many “very thoughtful” people looking at the legislation and said it has not yet taken a position on the plan. But he said CSU would support the proposal to save the higher education system.

Both Penry and Morse recognize higher education’s dire funding circumstances, Blake said, and understand that state funding for higher education is likely to continue to decline in coming years. He said the CSU System Board of Governors is made up of uniquely talented individuals who would make use of increased financial and operational flexibility to improve CSU.

Between 1981 and 1984, when CSU had sole power over increasing its tuition, it raised tuition 87.24 percent. But in the last four years, during Colorado’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, tuition has only increased by less than half that amount. During those last four years, the state legislature has controlled tuition hikes.

Student government officials said the institution will take full advantage of any tuition flexibility in its financial crunch.

“They do have accessibility in mind, but without that 9 percent check does accessibility look the same to the administration as it does to students?” said ASCSU President Dan Gearhart, adding that without the cap the BOG’s job gets easier.

During the Senate session Wednesday, Morse said it’s not unreasonable to ask students to work 10 hours a week during the semester and 40 hours a week in the summer to help pay for their future, according to the Associated Press.

He also said students should be able to take on $5,000 a year in debt at research colleges, like CSU, and $3,000 at community colleges.

“I used to work 40 hours a week and put that all into school,” Gearhart said. “You can maybe pay for school, maybe pay for books, but not much more than that.”

CSU political science professor John Straayer said the plan is an attempt by the state legislature to shift the burden of sustaining higher education onto students instead of working to create a reasonable funding stream for universities.

Although some patchwork like this plan may be necessary in the short term, Straayer said, legislators have known about the brewing funding crisis for a long time. He said state leaders need to get out of the capitol building and start working to turn public opinion in favor of funding higher education.

“If we’re going to be a vibrant, attractive state to live in and for businesses … a patchwork is not going to get it done. It’s not going to get it done,” Straayer said.

Evan Dreyer, spokesperson for Gov. Bill Ritter, said state leaders are working to find long-term solutions to the higher education funding crisis but said the recession and the fact that federal stimulus funds, which are currently being used to plug Colorado’s higher education funding gap, runs out in 2011 makes finding short-term solutions a priority.

“It’s a lot easier to look at the problem in short-term than the long-term solution,” Matt Worthington, ASCSU director of Legislative Affairs,said.

Three weeks remain in this year’s legislative session and some legislators are confident the bill will pass with support from Morse and Penry, but Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, said he wouldn’t be so sure the bill would pass in its current state.

Fischer said he thinks the bill takes Colorado in a bad direction and said he would prefer to see a stronger statewide system of higher education with more investment in universities.

“We ought to be investing more in higher education than we are,” he said. “We need to find ways to bring more funding to the universities rather than saying ‘well, we give up.’ The state is kind of washing its hands of higher education and letting universities go their own way.”

Senior Reporter Kirsten Silveira and News Editor Jim Sojourner can be reached at news@collegian.com.

Details of the plan

-Aims to help plug the state’s $1.7 billion shortfall next fall by raising $300 million out of the pockets of parents, students
-Gives state universities flexibility to raise tuition more than the typically state-mandated 9 percent cap if they prove an increase is needed
-Requires universities to meet strict graduation, student employment standards and provide financial support opportunities
-Students would be given voting rights on their respective university’s governing board for budget matters (excludes CU-Boulder)

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