Jun 172010
Authors: Kirsten Silveira

DENVER –– In an attempt to rescue middle-class Colorado families from falling into the cracks of financial aid, CSU today in Denver introduced a program that would ensure students whose families make less than $57,000 annually would pay no more than half of tuition.

In addition to helping out median income families, CSU also announced that for low-income students who qualify for the Federal Pell-Grant –– awarded based on income tax, household size, savings, investments, state you reside in and employment status –– tuition and fees would be completely covered.

The initiative, coined Commitment to Colorado, will take effect in fall 2011, which is also the start of fiscal year 2012. Twenty-one percent, or 3,759 students, could apply for some form of aid from the new program.

Budget projections for FY12 show that 3,016 students will be Pell-Grant eligible and pay nothing, instead of the $6,986 in general tuition and fees.

Oscar Felix, executive director of CSU’s Access Center, which caters to those who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, said he sees about 5,000 people annually, from middle school children to 45-year-olds, who would benefit from Commitment to Colorado.

Felix, who came from a low-income household, said he was awarded the Pell-Grant as a first-generation college student and “benefited from someone else’s contribution.” But, now that he’s received a Ph.D his children will be sent to college on his dime.

“Those folks who can afford to pay it for our kids are, in a way, contributing to society,” he said. “The tide raises all boats.”

Partly funded by tuition hikes, the measure will increase financial aid opportunities for the poor and middle-class from the wallets of both students who can afford to foot the bills, as well out-of-state students.

“We will probably continue to increase tuition like most universities,” CSU President Tony Frank said, adding that balancing the budget with increases is a national trend. “We watch the price in that marketplace very carefully.”

In addition to tuition increases, the university will look to it’s fundraising campaign for additional money to put toward scholarships, CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander said in an e-mail to the Collegian.

Both the state and federal government kicks money into the financial aid fund, Bohlander said. Merit scholarships will not be touched by this initiative.

Frank said the desire to help more students in the state was driven home for him after he spent the last year traveling across the state and coming face-to-face with families who’ve been hit by the economic recession and struggle to pay their bills. The university is investing in the students, Frank said, because Coloradans can benefit from CSU degrees and the state sees returns from college graduates.

“We’re also doing this so the young boy from the eastern plains who has the ability to be an engineer doesn’t have to repair small engines,” Frank said during his speech in the West Foyer of the Colorado State Capitol.

CSU is a land-grant institution founded in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln signed the “Land-Grant Act” with the hope that every student with the ability and drive could attend a university and earn a degree. Commitment to Colorado, Frank said, is “CSU’s 21st Century version of Lincoln’s commitment.”

A list compiled by university public relations officials shows a number of universities around the country have made similar promises to students who come from a less-affluent backgrounds.

CU-Boulder’s version –– “CU Promise” –– offers free tuition, fees and books to in-state students with family incomes of or below $22,050, the federally-established poverty level.

Gov. Bill Ritter, a CSU alumnus who spoke about CSU’s success with the Colorado Commitment program, said he came from a low-income family with 12 brothers and sisters.

“I think today that the ‘A’ takes on two other meanings, affordability and accessibility,” Ritter said, describing the painted ‘A’ west of campus that stands for the agriculture roots of CSU.

The new plan comes on the heels of Senate Bill 3, which allows universities to submit proposals bargaining to break the current 9 percent tuition cap. If a university’s proposal is approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, a school such as CSU could raise tuition and ultimately gain greater operational autonomy, what has been described as a step toward privatization.

The concept of hiking tuition to compensate for a lack of state funding, however, is not a new one.

In 2007, Former CSU President Larry Penley attempted to slip a last-minute amendment into the proposed state budget; commonly known as the Long Bill. Similar to Senate Bill 3, Penley’s amendment would have put more money in CSU’s bank account.

But, instead of being dubbed an actual tuition increase, it called for students to purchase more credit hours to be considered full-time, which would have raised tuition more than 30 percent. His efforts were met with student uproar and political failure.

And while CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander said with increased tuition comes financial aid, he also confirmed that Penley had no plan similar to Commitment to Colorado.

“If Penley had an element to offset the steep tuition increase for middle to low income families, I don’t remember it,” said longtime political science professor John Straayer.

Though Straayer thinks it’s “unfortunate that the university has to do something like this,” he said it seems CSU is doing all it can to meld access, quality and budget balancing under the current circumstances of drastically low state funding.

Assistant News Editor Kirsten Silveira can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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