Grim future for higher ed

Sep 142011
Authors: Allison Sylte

Colorado State University President Tony Frank has often said that we are “privatizing higher education in Colorado slowly and surely,” an assertion confirmed by a recent University of Denver study arguing that if Colorado’s fiscal situation doesn’t change, the state’s public universities could receive no public funding by 2025.

“It provides a very sound framework for discussion with all of Colorado, and I think what this really precipitates is that we need to have a serious discussion about its implications,” said CSU System Chancellor Joe Blake.

The study was commissioned by the Colorado state legislature and was conducted by DU’s Center for Colorado’s Economic Future, an independent panel of experts charged with analyzing and forecasting Colorado’s tax revenues and expenditures.

As Colorado’s current financial policies stand, in 12 years, the entirety of state spending will be devoted to “the Big Three:” prisons, K-12 and healthcare.

This is because, as state population increases and revenue declines, “the Big Three” begin to occupy larger and larger segments of Colorado’s budget, diverting funds from other programs, said Jeff Roberts, an analyst for the Center for Colorado’s Economic future.

And according to Roberts, this could mean higher education, as one of the few discretionary portions of the budget, may see significant cuts.

“Higher education is a priority, but there are limits to how much can be allocated to higher education given the current structure of the state budget,” said Eric Brown, the communications director for Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“What we’re essentially saying is that we have to mechanically close this gap, either via cuts or tax increases,” Roberts said. “If you do this with cuts, you can end up you can end up losing subsidies to higher education. We’re not the first people to say it: it’s a concern to a lot of people.”

Colorado is currently ranked 48th out of 50 states in terms of higher education funding per resident, and has one of the lowest tax rates in the nation, according to report by the University of Colorado-Denver.

“We’re not unique in terms of being in “crisis mode” as far as state governments are concerned,” Roberts said. “… But we think the whole financing system in Colorado has major problems.”

In wake of declining state support, students are carrying the burden for a larger portion of their state education, directly fronting two-thirds of their education as compared to one-third just a few years ago, Frank said during a budget presentation to ASCSU.

This past year, CSU students received more than 20 percent tuition hikes, and at least 9 percent hikes are slated for the next three years.

And there are no concrete solutions to Colorado’s financial woes in sight.

“There’s going to be a need for additional budget cuts for the 2012/13 cycle, and all of higher education is going to be working together on this,” Blake said. “CSU will be, as we have been all along, very involved and engaged in those conversations.”

The results of the study argued that straight cuts or increased taxes would solve Colorado’s problems on their own, and so in the end, Colorado will be forced to adopt a combination of the two strategies.

But this, Roberts said, comes with a caveat.

“To balance the budget, Coloradans may have to pay more taxes for fewer government services,” Roberts said. “As you can imagine, that’s not necessarily palatable to Colorado voters.”

Colorado taxes are protected by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), a bill that mandates that all state tax increases have to be voted on. This has ensured that Colorado has a low tax rate, something that some officials say needs to change to balance the budget.

“Colorado has very, very low tax rates,” Frank said to ASCSU senate members during a Sept. 7 budget presentation. “That’s all I’m saying.”

While taxes are part of the issue, other authorities argue even bigger measures need to be taken to ultimately balance Colorado’s budget.

“Many of the structural things we have to address are in the state constitution, and require separate ballot measures to either undo or modify,” said Fort Collins State Rep. Randy Fischer.

But Fischer is hopeful, saying that the study may serve as a wake-up call for state legislation.

“At the state level I think you’ll see a much higher degree of bipartisanship and collaboration than on a national level when it comes to dealing with our long-term, structural budget issues,” Fischer said.

Associated Students of ASCSU Director of Governmental Affairs Chase Eckerdt agrees, saying that while the results of the study are dire, it may hopefully generate some discussion.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, people need to start talking about this and start talking about how to make an impact,” Eckerdt said.

Content Managing Editor Allison Sylte can be reached at

By the numbers

20 percent
CSU’s tuition increase for 2011/2012

12 percent
The maximum tuition increase CSU is allowed by the state

Number of jobs supported by higher education institutions in Colorado

$387 million
Amount of money in state and local tax revenue provided by higher education

$3.5 billion
Budget shortfall predicted by DU study in 2025

40 percent
Percent of Colorado General Fund currently allocated to K-12 education

The cost of an education at CSU not subsidized by the state

The cost of a CSU education subsidized by the state 20 years ago

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