Colorado is about to drastically overhaul its higher-education
system with a voucher system, but CSU students likely won’t notice
a difference – at least at first.
Aside from providing students more options for higher-education
funding, the new system could also act as a mechanism for
universities to raise in-state student tuition.
Despite praise from CSU President Larry Penley and legislators,
who have called the bill Colorado public higher education’s
salvation, several questions remain about the program:
* Why vouchers?
* Will the money be put directly in students’ pockets?
* Will universities receive less money?
* Will more students be encouraged to attend college?
* Is it unconstitutional to give state money to private
* Will community colleges become the schools of choice for
Colorado high school grads?
* The future?
Gov. Bill Owens is about to sign the College Opportunity Fund,
the first program of its kind in the United States.
The bill would initiate a stipend program, also known as
vouchers, for incoming college students. It would also grant
universities enterprise status if they meet certain criteria.
Enterprises function like private businesses instead of state
entities. Any institution operating with less than 10 percent of
its budget coming from the state is eligible for enterprise
With stipends, the state would give money to students for use at
a university of their choice, rather than giving money directly to
universities as a percentage of the state higher-education
Associated Students of CSU President-elect Katie Clausen said
she worries that students will misunderstand the stipend program to
mean that the voucher’s cost is deducted from their current
tuition, which is not true.
The voucher program also puts a 145-credit cap on receiving the
stipend for undergraduate students, which Clausen believes is
unfair to some students.
“Because there’s several students who are going to go over that
don’t deserve to be labeled as a career student,” she said.
The College Opportunity Fund is set at $2,400 per student for
use at public universities and $1,200 for use at private
institutions per year. This program would not take effect until
fall 2005 at the earliest.
The stipend program’s main benefit, some supporters say, is it
would give universities more flexibility in raising tuition.
It is this freedom that Jim Martin, a member of the University
of Colorado Board of Regents, is worried about.
“Where is the difference going to come from?” Martin said. “I
predict tuition and fees will raise $10,000 dollars in the next 10
Because universities would be independent enterprises, tuition
would no longer be considered state revenue. This past legislative
session, a 1.1 percent tuition increase was all that the Taxpayer’s
Bill of Rights would allow. (see graphic)
With a voucher program, the governor and state legislature would
still review tuition increases, as they currently do. Despite this,
however, the freedom from TABOR gives the universities more to
bargain with in the tuition-increase negotiations, said Gerard
Bomotti, vice president for Administrative Services.
“(Owens) and the legislature would still have to agree upon the
tuition level increases for all of public higher education whether
we were enterprises or not. But I guess what my point is, the
technical restriction of TABOR and the refund at least would allow
us to engage in the discussion of a higher level of tuition than we
were this year,” Bomotti said.
Sen. Peggy Reeves, D-Larimer County, said she voted against the
College Opportunity Fund partly because the bill does not bring any
new money into higher education. She also said the fact that Owens
and the legislature have authority over tuition increases does not
give higher education more freedom.
“I did not see that higher education institutions gain increased
flexibility as a result of this legislation,” Reeves said.
Right now, CSU receives about $3,200 per resident student from
the state, which includes undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral
students. The $2,400 stipend only includes undergraduate
The rest of the money would be made up through fee-for-service
contracts negotiated by the Colorado Commission on Higher
The contracts would be for non-undergraduate programs such as
CSU’s graduate school, its veterinary programs and Cooperative
“If there’s enrollment growth at a community college versus
enrollment growth at research universities, I think the economics
of it say it’s harder for the research university to support that
growth at a $2,400 a head basis,” Bomotti said.
These contracts should give universities roughly the same base
funding that they currently have, Bomotti said.
Money in students’ pockets?
The $2,400 or $1,200 voucher would not go directly to
The state, through the Colorado Student Loan Program, would
divide the money out to universities after students enroll.
“The money won’t physically go to you or your parents. You will,
by your enrollment, direct this new state administrative entity
(the CSLP) to where it would direct (the money),” Bomotti said.
Rick O’Donnell, executive director of the Colorado Commission on
Higher Education, said the bill gives students more control and
responsibility in how they pay for college.
“When a student enrolls every semester at a qualifying
university, and the university certifies that the student’s there
and enrolled, then the Colorado Student Loan Program will forward
the funding directly to the university,” O’Donnell said.
Will more students attend college?
Another benefit of vouchers is that it will increase access to
higher education for high school graduates, supporters say. Bomotti
said Penley shares this view.
“I believe he has a philosophical support for it that you know
if a student and a parent in the state wants to take this money and
go to a private school or whatever that that’s a good public
policy,” Bomotti said.
But Martin does not believe the bill will increase access to
universities for different types of students.
“Republicans have been set (on vouchers) since the ’80s as a
model for higher education,” Martin said. “All we’ll see is less
diversity, less moderate, middle-class students.”
Bomotti said it remains to be seen whether a stipend program
will affect university enrollments.
“Some supporters of vouchers believe that with the passage of
this bill, it will encourage more students to attend public higher
education,” Bomotti said. “That’s a possibility, I think
everybody’s kind of waiting to see if that will translate into
Giving money to private universities?
Much debate about the bill deals with the constitutionality of
allowing vouchers to be directed toward three private institutions:
the University of Denver, Colorado College and Regis
Directing this money toward private higher education may also
take money away from public universities.
O’Donnell said private schools do already receive some funding
through financial aid to low-income students. He said the $1,200
dollars is also only for low-income students, it just comes in the
form of a partial stipend.
“It does take a slight sliver of money away from the current
public institutions,” O’Donnell said. “The forecast is it’s just a
couple million dollars and the amount of money going to the public
institutions is hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The bill’s opponents have argued that this is not the time to
take money from public universities.
“No. 1, they cut money to institutions and students. They
already have a pot (of money) that isn’t big enough and then cut
$1,200 (per student) from it,” Martin said. “Boulder lost at least
$1,300 per student with the passage of the bill.”
Sen. Reeves agreed with Martin’s perspective.
“As a matter of fact, by providing vouchers to three private
higher education institutions, the net result was less money for
public higher education,” she said.
Martin also argued that the cuts will be felt more as losses for
public institutions than as significant gains for private
“The joke is that $1,200 dollars at Colorado College is like
watering a football field with a garden hose,” Martin said. “(At
roughly) $800 a credit-hour, that won’t even get you three
More students at community colleges?
Some people have said a voucher program would drive more
students to attend community colleges.
Enterprise status would allow higher tuition increases,
especially at four-year colleges. The belief is that the tuition
increases would eventually price out middle-class students, making
community colleges the only affordable option.
“Ultimately, moderate, middle-class families will be priced out
of prestigious state institutions,” Martin said. “All they’ve done
is create a feeder to community colleges.”
O’Donnell sees it as a matter of the universities getting the
right amount of money for the number of students they attract.
“The university wouldn’t get that money if the student didn’t
enroll, didn’t show up, chooses not to come back for the next
semester,” he said, “and if a bunch of students choose to go to one
institution over another, then one institution may have a lot less
funding than they were expecting…”
O’Donnell said Gov. Owens will likely sign the bill in the next
couple weeks and Colorado universities will probably start using a
stipend program starting in the fall of 2005.