Colorado’s higher education crisis

Universities across Colorado are hurting financially because of the state’s second-to-last nationwide ranking in higher education funding, and tuitions are rising to make up for it.

Students make their way to the Chancellor’s office during a protest against tuition increase in this file photo from Mar. 8, 2012. (James Bradbury/CU Independent file)

Colorado’s position as the 49th of all 50 states in terms of money received for higher education is up a notch from its dead-last ranking in 2010, according to the National Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking. Colorado devotes $132.18 per capita to higher education funding; the U.S. average is $242.45.

As a result of the 31 percent decrease (approximately $216 million) in state financial support over the last five years, CU-Boulder’s tuition has been climbing steadily for both in- and out-of-state students.

“There’s a tremendous pressure on tuition,” said Stephen Ludwig, a CU Regent-at-Large since 2006 and vocal supporter of higher education funding reform. “We’ve been able to keep tuition increases modest, but they’re never desirable. If we stay on the path we’re on, it’s going to change the picture of affording a college education.”

The tuition for out-of-state students at CU, not including the cost of living, is $29,952 per academic year, a thousand-dollar increase from 2011-2012. For in-state students, tuition is $8,056, a $384 increase from last year.

And CU isn’t the only Colorado university feeling the pressure. This summer, Colorado State University President Tony Frank told the Sterling, Colo. Journal Advocate, “We are, and we have been for several decades, on a path — and this isn’t just Colorado, it’s a national trend — of privatizing America’s system of public education.”

The struggle for students

Connie Redfield is a 23-year-old senior who will graduate from CU in May with a degree in film studies. When she finished high school in 2007, she had no idea that her college experience would be affected so greatly by her financial situation.

Last spring, “I maxed out on my student loans,” Redfield said. “I took time off of school and did temp work for a while, making $10 an hour. And then, I could pay my rent, but I couldn’t save up for school.”

Redfield is an out-of-state student who eventually applied for and now pays in-state tuition. For those first few years, she didn’t know the bills would pile up as high as they did.

“I’m a first generation college student, so I didn’t really know the [financial] processes,” she said. “I didn’t have any guidance.”

Over the past few years, CU has increased the amount of financial aid it offers to students, but that won’t be enough if the problems on the state level continue. Only 4.2 percent of CU’s total funds come from the state, and the 2012 state funding amount for the university — just under $56 million — is a 29.56 percent decrease from 2011 (about $80 million). Meanwhile, the amount of money CU receives from tuition has been rising.

“Community colleges are in danger of closing,” Ludwig said. “Dramatic cuts could be made, offerings at CU could be reduced, there could be a lot of layoffs and tuition could take an even bigger hit.”

For soon-to-be high school grads who will have to pay their own way like Redfield, CU is falling further out of reach.

A state issue

Wyoming, Colorado’s neighbor to the north, is No. 1 on the list of state and local support for higher education per capita. Other states in the region, notably New Mexico (5) and Nebraska (7), are also doing just fine.

So what is it about Colorado?

“It all stems from 1992,” said Lisa Weil, Director of Policy and Communications for Great Education Colorado, an organization that works to inform state residents about education at all levels and advocate better funding solutions. “That was when TABOR passed.”

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, was added to the Colorado Constitution 20 years ago (when Colorado was 34th nationwide) to limit the amount state and local governments can spend. It directly affected education funding.

“It established how big the pie was going to be for the state,” Weil said. “The one moving part that is easiest to cut is higher education. Higher education gets pitted against everything else.”

While the economic downturn of 2008-2009 hit all 50 states, Weil said the recession brought benefits.

“The stimulus dollars helped,” she said. “These are state-created issues.”

Indeed, ’08 and ’09 saw huge increases in the amount of state money allocated to universities. For CU, 2009’s $86 million has been the largest amount.

Ludwig echoed Weil. “If you look at higher education funding across the United States, because of the recession, the country as a whole invested more in higher education,” he said. “But when TABOR became a part of Colorado’s constitution, it brought increased costs in.”

Because the problem is so engrained in the state government, organizations like Weil’s Great Ed have turned their attention to the Colorado legislature. There has been public outcry regarding TABOR since its enactment and state officials have spoken out against the bill, but Weil said the mobilization of Coloradans in support of major change is a necessary component.

“There is a growing concern that we are not doing right by our students,” Weil said. “This is the year that the legislature needs to put higher education as its central focus. Now is the time to figure out how we’re going to make sure that our schools are high quality and have the resources they need, and standing together is really key.”

CU plays defense

While action in the state capital is brewing, administrators in Boulder are doing what they can to cushion the blow to their finances. CU still receives federal research funding and more state funding than any other college in Colorado, but if that annual amount continues to decrease, it seems inevitable that the university will have to start making sacrifices.

In last year’s financial report, CU system President Bruce Benson addressed the issue on the very first page, referring to “steady declines in the state funding that is crucial to our operations.” Other revenue generators have been emphasized, including money from parking and housing services, donations and fundraising, but for how long will that be enough?

“We don’t want to be the first state in the country to defund higher education,” Ludwig said. “There are a lot of things that we’re looking at aggressively to keep costs in check.”

Options include “taking advantage of technology transfer” (working with industries and companies to bring cutting-edge technologies to campus) and increasing CU’s online credit offerings, Ludwig said.

But there is a danger of relying too heavily on outside businesses and students’ own financial abilities for support, which is what CSU President Frank alluded to when he mentioned the “privatizing” of education.

It will be an uphill battle, but there are people at every administrative level in the state who want to turn things around.

“The vitality of our economy depends in such great part on the quality of the education system,” Weil said. “Taxpayers need a thriving economy. People are not going to come to Colorado to get their degrees because of how expensive it is.”

For CU student Redfield, learning the ins and outs of the university’s financial system — namely, applying for in-state tuition as an out-of-state student — came too late.

“I’m going to graduate with $120,000 in student loan debt,” she said. “We’re all going to graduate with so much debt that we won’t be able to put money back into the economy. And I’ve always worked. One semester, I had three jobs. Before I got my in-state, I was enrolled in 9 credit hours, and that was $16,000. There was just no way.”

Weil, a CU graduate, said that times are dire and legislative changes need to be made before the holes get too deep.

“There is a direct interest to everyone in how good our higher education system is,” she said. “We are just not putting out the effort. At some point, the quality of life in our mountains won’t make up for it anymore.”

 Contact CU Independent Breaking News Editor Annie Melton at 

Annie Melton

Annie is a senior news-editorial journalism major. She spends most of her free time following politics obsessively, listening to music and missing good barbecue from her hometown of Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @meltonannie1

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