Oct 142008
Authors: Aaron Hedge, J. David McSwane

In response to CSU President Larry Penley’s controversial spending in recent years — pushing millions of dollars that could have gone to starving classrooms into administration and research — student government officials have formed an investigative committee to review the trends reported in the Collegian.

The grassroots, student-run committee plans to release its findings to state organizations and legislators who have called for transparency after finding out about Penley’s overhaul of top-level administration and increased focus on marketing research initiatives, which can’t fund the academic mission of the school.

“Our ultimate goal is a nice, shiny booklet to present to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education,” said committee leader Dan Palmer, the former director of Education for the Associated Students of CSU.

In Penley’s five years as president, funding for administration has skyrocketed and for the first time in school history, surpassed funding for CSU’s colleges.

During Penley’s five years as president, tuition and fees have risen 52 percent and 73 percent, respectively — a trend some

members of the ASCSU say is troublesome.

University officials have defended the increases in administrative spending as an initiative that will bring CSU up to par with peer institutions and the academic colleges.

“There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding out there about the budget and the budget process,” said Brad Bohlander the university’s chief spokesperson, referring to several articles that printed in the Collegian in recent weeks regarding the controversial funding trends. “The more people involved in the budget, the better.”

The committee’s report will go to the CCHE, the CSU System Board of Governors and the Joint Budget Committee, which approve the university’s final budgets.

In February, the group of student government leaders as well as students from the university’s academic colleges plans to present its report to state officials with detailed spending analyses of how Penley’s saturation of high-paid administrators with large budgets affects students and the academic colleges, which have seen much smaller funding increases in recent years.

Over winter break, the investigative committee will make recommendations based on e-mail surveys of the CSU community to university officials for budget items, outlining spending priorities that students approve.

Palmer initiated the meetings in response to concern among student government officials about skyrocketing tuition and fee rates in an environment where a significantly smaller number of credit hours are taught by tenure-track professors.

And with dwindling state funds for higher education and an on-going national economic crisis, students taking loans to pay for their tuition face an uncertain future.

The CSU proposed budget for fiscal year 2010 outlines a more than $57.5 million spending authority, up by more than $18 million from fiscal year 2009, and the coalition is skeptical about where the bulk of the new money will come from.

Historically, an increased spending authority from the state correlates to an effective increase in tuition for students and their families.

“Where are they going to get money to pay for a $57.5 million budget? The answer is (the students), but (they) can’t pay for it,” Palmer said.

But Bohlander said the proposed budget is only that — proposed.

“That is what we term an aspiration budget . this is version 1.0,” he said, adding that the proposal is based on best-case-scenario data, and nothing is set in stone until the JBC approves the budget in spring, 2009.

The budget proposal calls for a $4 million decrease from last year in expenditures on mandatory costs, which include salary increases, debt service and utilities.

The leftover money — more than $34 million — will be allocated to what Palmer called “audacious” stretch goals, including bringing in 95 new faculty lines and $2 million in expenditures for the university’s widely-touted green initiatives.

Trevor Trout, the former vice president for ASCSU, said it’s unclear where the money is coming from and called for more transparency from the administration.

He said the numbers show the university has largely focused on research over the past few years and has disproportionately loaded the cost of the expenditures onto the backs of students.

“I think the claim to be made is that the pendulum has swung too far to one side,” Trout said.

In 2008 alone, the university took $45 million from the general fund – primarily tuition dollars — for research expenditures.

Taylor Smoot, the president of the ASCSU, expressed concern about how the new money and stretch goals, which include large expenditures on business relationships, would benefit the school, saying that students don’t see the effects of the spending in classrooms.

“Why are we spending all this money on capital ventures when we’re not getting any return for it?” Smoot said.

In addition to the spending oversight, the coalition will also focus on revenue collection. It will make recommendations to the university for alternative tuition models that CSU officials are looking at implementing.

The first, differential tuition, would charge more in fees to students who major in higher-paying fields than students in lower-paying fields. Under this model, a business student would be required to pay significantly more than a student majoring in English.

Money from the increased fees would go toward hiring faculty, preliminary proposals for 2010 indicate.

But the model has been criticized by higher education organizations for deterring students in lower-paying fields from expanding their horizons. Higher fees could intimidate a French major if he or she wanted to take a higher-end business class.

The second model, flat tuition, would set flat prices for students for the four years of their education. Every student would apply knowing exactly how much his or her education will cost from start to finish, a model CU-Boulder has adopted with great success.

But funding trends could prove to be an obstacle as lawmakers have projected a continued downward spiral in state financing. Incoming freshman would have to fill unexpected holes from budget shortfalls under the flat tuition model.

“You’re forcing the incoming freshmen to bear the brunt of that,” Palmer said.

News Managing Editor Aaron Hedge and Enterprise Editor J. David McSwane can be reached at tips@collegian.com.

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