$100 million under SB 1 will aid education

…but it’s only a beginning
The Colorado Statesman

Colorado isn’t likely to climb much out of the cellar in nationwide rankings of per-student funding for higher education anytime soon, but a $100 million investment from the General Assembly should be a good start.

Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee took testimony on Senate Bill 14-001, which would put $100 million into higher education, an increase that begins to remedy the general fund cuts to higher education over the past decade. The bill designates $40 million for state-funded, need-based financial aid, $8.3 million for the college opportunity fund vouchers, $49.3 million into fee-for-service funding, and the balance into support for local district junior colleges and area vocational schools. SB 1 contains a 6 percent limit on tuition increases for 2014-15.

The committee will bring the bill back for amendments and a vote on Feb. 6.

In 2000, Colorado provided 68 percent of the funding for students to go to public colleges; the students were responsible for 32 percent of their college costs. Today, that figure has flipped: 69 percent is now borne by the students and their parents, and 31 percent comes from the state. “We cannot continue to shift the costs to students and parents,” said Frank Watrous of the Bell Policy Center, who testified in favor of SB 1 Wednesday.

Usually, changes to the state’s higher ed budget are done through the Long Appropriations Bill, but sponsors defended the use of a separate bill for the increase Wednesday. Co-sponsor Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, told the committee that he chairs that it’s about accountability. “It means we are trying to bring attention as much as possible to the reinvestment in higher education… and at the same time hold instructions accountable” by lowering the tuition limit, he said. Putting the $100 million into the budget through the Long bill might not make such an increase as obvious, he added.

For the past several years, public colleges and universities have had authority from SB 10-003 to raise tuition by up to 9 percent, but they also had permission under that bill to seek higher increases through a waiver to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. All but one institution, the Colorado School of Mines, obtained those waivers, so 27 out of 28 colleges and universities had permission to exceed the 9 percent cap.

The 6 percent tuition limit in SB 1 didn’t play as well for a couple of the committee’s Republican members. Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, said he thought the 6 percent limit was arbitrary and would prefer an increase tied to the rate of inflation. On the other hand, “perhaps we’re injecting ourselves into an area where we don’t belong,” an area that he said belongs under the authority of the college and university presidents and their boards.

Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster deferred to the authority of the General Assembly. “The state is the owner of 28 institutions, as you make an investment, your voice and input are important… This kind of guidance we take seriously.”

While the $100 million boost will help, it’s a far cry from the highpoint of higher education funding in the past decade, and doesn’t even meet a statutory requirement set in 2004.

Under the legislation that created the College Opportunity Fund, the General Assembly was required to increase general fund support by a formula based on inflation and enrollment. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who heads the Department of Higher Education and is a former president of Adams State College, said that if the Legislature made that kind of increase this year, it would cost almost another $100 million.

Students packed the hearing room during testimony Wednesday. Several community college students said they are paying their own way through college. Raenn Acosta, a student at the Community College of Denver, said some of her high school classmates chose to go into the workforce directly after high school rather than go to college because of the “outrageous” cost.

No one testified against SB 1, although Watrous, from the Bell Policy Center, said the $5 million targeted for merit aid ought to go to need-based aid instead, a recommendation also made by the Joint Budget Committee staff in a December briefing document on higher education issues. Merit aid equals options, Watrous said; need-based aid equals opportunity.

Watrous also addressed the issue of student debt, in response to a question from new Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada. Student debt is a significant issue in every state, he said. Some students make decisions on degree programs based on what the jobs will pay after graduation, and this results in students not choosing to go into areas needed “for the continuation of the social fabric” because those jobs don’t pay as well, Watrous explained.

According to the Project on Student Debt, in 2012 Colorado students averaged $24,540 in college loan debt at graduation, and 52 percent of those graduating from state colleges and universities leave with debt. The national average is around $29,400, with seven in 10 students graduating with debt. Student loan debt increases at 6 percent per year.

SB 1 doesn’t solve every affordability issue, but it’s a step in the right direction, said Kerr in a press conference with reporters earlier this month. Co-sponsor Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, said the bill is important to her because of its impact on her community. Students at one of her local high schools tell her that they can’t afford to go to college, yet a majority of the jobs in the future will require a college degree. “If we really want to help the middle class, you make sure everybody has access to higher education,” whether at a two-year or four-year college or a technical institution.

Kerr told The Colorado Statesman earlier this week that SB 1 isn’t designed to “rectify all the wrongs done to higher education financing” over the last decade. “It is designed to finally stop the pendulum” from swinging in the direction of more cuts and higher tuition increases. “This puts a stop to the out-of-control spiraling of tuition, and while it doesn’t reverse as much as we would like, it slows the growth of tuition and starts restoring some of the funds that have been cut.”

In that same interview, Jahn said the bill is just a first step in addressing higher education affordability. This “is about the middle class and lower income students,” she told The Statesman. “It’s the start of the discussion.” Jahn also said the bill is not only intended to address the funding for larger higher education institutions, but it also is about helping rural colleges.

Kerr and Jahn pointed out that all resident students will qualify for COF increases, proposed at $8.3 million. Currently, the COF voucher is worth $64 per credit hour, with a maximum of $1,920 per 30-credit hour year. Based on enrollment of 138,855 students listed in the 2013 Long Bill, $8.3 million would increase the COF by $2 per hour, or $60 per year.

Last week, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education released its annual tuition and fee report. It shows resident undergraduate tuition and fees ranging from a low of $1,860 for 30 credit hours at Colorado Mountain College, to $10,347 at CU-Boulder and $16,485 for the Colorado School of Mines. Based on 2013-14 rates, a 6 percent increase in tuition only at Colorado Mountain College would be $100.80; at CU-Boulder it would be $483.36 and at Mines, $815.40.

In 2010, Colorado ranked 50th nationally in state support for its research universities (CU-Boulder and Colorado State University-Fort Collins), according to the National Science Foundation. Overall, the state ranked 48th in per-student state funding for its public colleges and universities, according to a 2011 University of Colorado report.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com