Guest Columns

BENSON: BIPARTISAN BILL AIMS TO INCREASE FLEXIBILITY

Multifaceted legislative effort offers hope for more stability in higher education

Colorado’s higher education community looks to the start of the 2010 session of the General Assembly with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

We know legislators understand and value higher education’s contributions to our state’s economic, social and cultural fabric. Our colleges and universities are a significant economic driver for Colorado that creates billions in economic impact. We provide an educated workforce that forms the backbone of our state: educators, nurses, businesspeople, physicians, veterinarians, dentists and thousands of other professionals. Our research laboratories foster inventions and innovations that improve lives and create dozens of new companies. We address compelling state needs in health care and biosciences, renewable and sustainable energy, and in Colorado’s booming aerospace economy (second nationally, behind only California).

All of this happens despite the fact that Colorado higher education ranks 48th nationally in state funding per resident student. Our trepidation comes from the reality that this abysmal statistic is unlikely to improve in the 2009 legislative session.

While lawmakers appreciate what higher education brings to the table, their hands are tied by a combination of competing constitutional mandates and a horrible economy that shows few signs of improving any time soon. Federal stimulus money provides us a life preserver for the next year and a half, as well as time to plan for the budgetary cliff we are heading for in fiscal year 2011-12. But our funding prospects remain bleak.

We understand our obligation to do what families and businesses throughout Colorado are doing — tightening our belts and examining all expenditures. At the University of Colorado, we cut $29 million from our budget last year and are in the midst of another $21 million in budget-balancing measures this year through a combination of efficiencies, revenue generation and strategic cuts.

Yet, our hope comes from some help the Legislature can provide higher education this session. Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, have worked with higher education leaders and the state’s Fiscal Stability Commission on a bipartisan effort to craft legislation this session that will give higher education flexibility in several areas of our operations. It will by no means solve our fiscal crisis, but it is a step in the right direction.

The legislation has several facets, but, essentially, it would allow higher education to be more efficient and effective by cutting red tape that is often duplicative and burdensome. It aims to:

• Let higher education operate under fiscal rules specific to our enterprise rather than the one-size-fits-all state rules. Accountability will be key, and we have several checks and balances in place already, including strict audit procedures and fiduciary oversight from governing boards.

• Give institutions the latitude to distribute financial aid to the areas of greatest need rather than requiring us to follow a prescribed state formula. We believe this will allow us to direct more financial aid to middle-income families.

• Allow additional international students to attend our institutions while still guaranteeing that all qualified Colorado students are admitted.

• Facilitate transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions.

• Let higher education establish its own purchasing and operating procedures in the area of information technology.

• Give us more flexibility in the selective use of retired state workers, who bring experience and expertise to our workforce.

The particulars are subject to modification in the legislative process, but we in the higher education community are united in the belief that these modest adjustments to how we operate will pay dividends to Colorado. We fully understand and embrace our obligation to be efficient in our operations and accountable to our students, their parents and all residents of Colorado.

The larger issue of sustaining a system of higher education that is critical to Colorado’s economic and social health will require more than flexibility or legislative action. It will require a coalition of government, business, education and the people of our state to come together to find ways to ensure access, affordability and excellence in higher education.

Gov. Bill Ritter recently convened a group to study Colorado higher education and develop a plan for its future. That effort will be a good focal point for a conversation that is essential to Colorado’s future.

Bruce D. Benson is president of the University of Colorado.