Mar 082007
 
Authors: Vimal Patel

When students pay more for higher education, the state should as well.

That’s the fundamental belief of Associated Students of Colorado, a new coalition of more than a dozen schools formed to battle the increased costs of higher education.

And the lobbying group apparently has the ear of the governor. It helps, of course, that its leader is the governor’s son.

August Ritter, a junior natural resources recreation and tourism major at CSU, has become spokesman of the group. And it appears to be picking up steam, unlike any other student movement in Colorado.

In the last week, virtually every major (and minor) media outlet in the state has carried a story about the group’s rally at the Capitol on Monday.

A long-needed voice

The higher education picture in Colorado is dire, according to several experts.

For Colorado’s higher education funding to be on par with the funding of other peer institutions nationally, it would need to spend $832 million more than it currently does, according to a recent study by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

“That’s just to get to the national average,” August Ritter said. “That’s pretty ridiculous.”

And one reason the funding picture even got to this point, leaders say, is because students never had a powerful, unified voice.

ASC has no formal structure yet. It was started by student government leaders across the state in January, and its first major foray into the public was Monday, when group members lobbied about 60 to 70 state legislators.

Luke Ragland, director of Legislative Affairs for Associated Students of CSU, met with House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D-Denver) and state Sen. Steve Johnson (D-Fort Collins), a member of the Joint Budget Committee, along with several other legislators.

“A lot of the legislators are looking for creative ways to fund higher education,” Ragland said, adding that he believes Romanoff will be a champion of higher education funding.

Dozens of student leaders on Monday came from universities and colleges across the state. A few of August Ritter’s buddies from CSU even crashed on couches in the governor’s mansion the night before.

ASC started with phone calls between leaders from different schools. Ryan Biehle, the director of State and Legislative Affairs at Colorado-Boulder, was instrumental in sparking the dialogue, Ragland said.

Biehle talked with Ragland and Jason Green, ASCSU president. The CSU student leaders were on board and the group was launched.

Group members meet about twice weekly, and while the workings and structure are still being ironed out, the goal is clear: provide a unified student voice on issues of higher-education funding.

“I think the past couple years, people have been taking advantage of students,” August Ritter said. “We don’t really have a voice at the Capitol or a unified voice, and we really need one.”

A simple first step

The governor has indicated he wants to increase state funding of higher education by 8.47 percent next year. But ASC wants a 9.15 percent increase-about $2.8 million more than the governor’s request.

The number isn’t arbitrary.

The state’s universities, colleges and community colleges will be able to increase tuition next year by respective percentages, and they most likely will. The estimated tuition burden increase on students, according to ASC, will be about $58.5 million.

Gov. Ritter’s higher education budget calls for an extra $55.7 million in higher education funding. The extra $2.8 million in state funding would offset any potential tuition increases.

It’s a short-term fix, but it would send a symbolic message about the new group’s clout and its message to students of no longer standing idly by as lawmakers pile on increases.

“We’re asking the general assembly to put just enough money into the higher education pot that they’re asking Colorado families to pay,” August Ritter said.

The Joint Budget Committee is set to meet Monday, when it’s expected to hammer out a budget proposal.

On message

Without August Ritter, it’s unlikely media would have paid nearly as much attention to the issue. It’s a fact the CSU student acknowledges, but laments.

“Too much attention was paid (on me being) the governor’s son,” Ritter said. “It’s not about me being the governor’s son.”

He said he was just one of several dozen students who made the decision to be committed to higher-education funding in Colorado. He decided to sign on as media spokesman because he had the experience and believed in the cause, he said.

The rally was well organized, but it’s likely August Ritter’s presence played a large role in getting media coverage, said CSU political science professor John Straayer.

Ragland said that there were larger issues involved, and that August Ritter handled his role remarkably well.

“We ended up getting all the best news coverage,” he said. “(August) did such a great job at getting back to our message.”

Continued problems

The passage of Referendum C in November 2005 by Colorado voters rescued higher education-at least temporarily-from a grim future, Straayer said, but the overall picture isn’t quite rosy.

The taxing limits of TABOR were only suspended for five years. And the Arveschoug-Bird spending limit, a constitutional restriction that prohibits overall general fund spending to no more than 6 percent of the previous year’s spending, is still in place.

Until TABOR and the spending limit are dealt with conclusively, the road to recovery for Colorado higher education can’t take place, Straayer said.

When spending is restricted from growing by more than 6 percent, that means proposals of more than the limit-like the governor’s 8.5 percent proposed increase-have to eat into other areas such as healthcare, highways and corrections.

Groups like ASC could pressure legislators to make higher education the top priority. The state was forced to make cuts starting around 2001, and higher education took the brunt of the hit.

“When the revenues plummeted for three years in a row, what are you gonna cut?” Straayer said. “It’s higher education.”

Managing Editor Vimal Patel can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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