The Colorado Senate Education Committee heard favorable testimony Wednesday morning on a bill that would direct millions of dollars to higher education and cap tuition increases at state universities.
Students and administrators from eight Colorado universities and colleges, including CU President Bruce Benson and a CU student government staffer, were among the 13 people who testified at the first hearing of the proposed College Affordability Act. All were in favor of the bill.
Ali Skewes-Cox, director of the CUSG Legislative Affairs Commission, said the bill would benefit CU.
“As a student leader, I constantly hear complaints about rising tuition,” Skewes-Cox said in her testimony. “I’m excited to see this bill work to keep tuition low.”
Benson said before the hearing that the $16,560,551 allotted to the University of Colorado in the current bill would be spent on the university system’s general operations, which include basic costs such as faculty salaries and, as he put it, “turning the lights on.”
“It’s not going to endowments or one-time fixes,” Benson said. “It’s going to normal operations.”
Benson, who sat before the committee with Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster, said in his testimony that CU has attempted to counteract declining state funding in recent years with alternative revenue streams like fundraising and research grants. But those funds, he said, are pre-designated and cannot be diverted to operations, which he called CU’s “greatest need.”
“The point is that we are doing a lot to help ourselves, but the state funding remains critical to us,” Benson said.
Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Douglas, asked the presidents and Garcia if the bill’s cap on tuition increases improperly inflicts state oversight on an issue that universities are more fit to decide themselves.
Scheffel said that tying tuition increases strictly to economic inflation — an alternative to the bill’s cap that was discussed at the hearing but not included in the original bill — may also be “stepping someplace where we shouldn’t.”
Garcia said the Colorado Commission on Higher Education is required by statute to ask the legislature for state university funding each year in an amount paralleling inflation, but has come up short by even more than the amount that the College Affordability Act gives.
“For this year, if we look just at the cost stipend amount and we add to it inflation and enrollment, we would have a request for $731 million, not $604 million,” Garcia said. “So we have not kept pace with inflation.”
Sen. Mike Johnston, vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, said that university boards have seen declining state funding that put them in a tight spot in recent years, between public resources and autonomy on decisions like tuition increases.
“I think that what we’re trying to do here, is go halfway,” Johnston, D-Denver, said. “To make sure we get resources for you and also control costs at the same time.”
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Arapahoe, called attention to the economic developments that state education and research add to Colorado, specifically mentioning the CU-led MAVEN mission to Mars, which the Denver Post reports infused roughly $400 million into Colorado’s economy.
“We do need to make a great investment,” Todd said. “I think higher education is one of those that we need to really maintain for the state of Colorado.”
Matt Nadel, a 20-year-old student at Colorado College, attended the hearing with his Economics of Higher Education professor and testified in favor of the bill, though his private college will not receive any of the $60 million the bill reserves for state universities.
Johnston asked Nadel if his class would agree with the $100 million bill’s allotment of 60 percent to state institutions and 40 percent to financial aid.
“I think that within public higher education a great, great increase in financial aid will also cause a further increase in tuition, so there is a certain point at which the marginal return from increasing financial aid will not be beneficial to a lot of public institutions,” Nadel said.
“Hence the purpose of the cap, correct? To avoid that tuition increase to run alongside financial aid?” Johnston asked Nadel.
His professor and the president of Colorado College, Jill Tiefenthaler, smiled.
The committee put off a vote on the bill to consider the insight and possible amendments and will meet again at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 6 to vote on whether to send the bill to the floor of the Colorado Senate.
Contact CU Independent Breaking News Editor Alison Noon at firstname.lastname@example.org.