Feb 042004
 
Authors: Christiana Nelson

The College Opportunity Fund, a plan to transform Colorado’s

higher education into a voucher system, may run into trouble down

the line, said Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada/Westminster.

While the College Opportunity Fund hopes to release universities

from the confines of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights by not counting

higher education tuition as state revenue, Windels worries that

simply changing the flow of state money from schools to students

may not be the answer.

“Personally, I believe TABOR proponents will file a lawsuit if

this bill passes saying it’s bookkeeping trickery,” Windels said.

“I’d rather see a ballot issue asking the people of Colorado to

exempt higher education tuition from TABOR.”

The Public Higher Education Financing Act of 2003, which

includes the College Opportunity Fund, did not make it out of

committee last year due to time constraints. Joe Peters, the

legislative aide to Sen. Ed Jones, R-Boulder/Broomfield and a

Senate sponsor for the bill, said legislators hope to propose the

bill in the near future.

While supporters argue the bill could provide additional aid to

students, Windels said the bill would not increase the amount of

money given to higher education.

“It does not create any ‘new money’ for students or for

colleges. It just ‘re-labels’ how it is distributed,” Windels

said.

“There will not be a fund where money for every person in

Colorado is deposited and sits there waiting until that person

chooses to attend college. Money from ‘the fund’ is simply the same

money that the state gave to colleges for each student enrolled,

given now as a voucher in the name of that student, rather than as

a nameless bulk deposit based on the number of total students

enrolled in the school.”

Peters agreed the main difference between the current system and

the system under the College Opportunity Fund is whom the money is

given to.

“The university would not get funding directly from the state,

but would receive it through students,” he said. “I’m under the

impression that the idea was to replace state funding

dollar-for-dollar, without additional cuts or increases.”

Peters said his concern with the legislation’s implementation

would be a decrease in state funds, but he said current students

would not be negatively impacted.

“The only problem is if the new system provides less funding

than the old, but even in that case current students are sure to be

grandfathered in,” he said.

Regardless of the circumstances, Windels is worried about the

lack of state funding for higher education.

“When this bill was first discussed last year, the voucher was

to be $4,200 per pupil,” Windels said. “This year, it’s $2,500 per

pupil because the state has cut funding to higher education. The

pot of money for all higher education students is smaller and,

thus, the voucher is smaller.”

Peters said that in the legislation’s most recent form the

longevity of stipends was based upon student credit hours.

“Full-time students would receive the stipend until they reached

140 credit hours,” Peters said. “Although I’m not sure if it was in

the legislation, a smaller stipend could be extended to part-time

students.”

While the state would maintain power over tuition, Windels said

that if universities were to privatize then the state could not

assure that increased tuition was accompanied by increased

need-based aid, which could lead more students to attend community

colleges.

Proponents of the bill disagree, saying that one of the main

advantages to the College Opportunity Fund is its ability to help

low-income students attend higher education institutions.

“On the separate issue of privatizing colleges, which is

unlikely to happen anytime soon, a system of subsidizing students

would help mitigate any impact on low-income students,” Peters

said.

While Windels said the bill has some attractive components, she

believes taxpayers need to understand the most drastic change that

the College Opportunity Fund could conjure for higher

education.

“For the first time, however, private and religious schools are

eligible to receive funding,” Windels said. “Remember, there is no

new state funding, so opening eligibility to students attending

private and religious schools just reduces the amount of the

voucher.”

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