But now the Legislature is working to restore much of that funding. In the 2014 General Assembly that convened last week in Denver, bills and budget increases that some legislators call historic have potential to turn the tide in funding higher education across the state.
After state higher-ed operating funds topped out at $706 million in 2008-09 and quickly plummeted into the depths of recession, Colorado earned a reputation for defunding its colleges and universities — until last year, when an economic rebound encouraged increased spending again.
This year, the $101.8 million (15.5 percent) higher education increase included in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2014-15 proposal doubles that of last year; and along with a bill to limit tuition increases, could help the system get back on the track of post-recession recovery.
“Although the session is just beginning, it is important to note that higher education hasn’t been a focus of the Legislature for some time, except as related to absorbing cuts,” said BJ Scott, 5th Congressional District commissioner for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. “So, at this point it looks hopeful that this focus can help higher education recover the significant cuts of the past.”
The additional $60 million in operating funds and $40 million for financial aid included in the state proposal are unprecedented and therefore historic in Colorado, according to Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia.
“They are the single largest increases that we have seen,” said Garcia, the former president of Pikes Peak Community College and Colorado State University-Pueblo who now also serves as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “Last year we were able to make a modest increase, which was great, but we’ve got a long way to go to get back to our high point several years ago.”
If the budget is approved in its current form, every public college and university in the state would receive across-the-board 11 percent increases in operating dollars in exchange for agreeing to cap tuition increases at 6 percent each year and justify any tuition increase to the Legislature (SB 14-001).
Of the $40 million financial aid increase, $30 million would be invested in the recently devised Completion Incentive Model, which encourages retention and graduation among the state’s 31 higher education institutions. The remaining $10 million would be divided equally to create additional work-study opportunities and offer more merit-based financial aid.
The budget would boost state operating funds for higher education from around $544 million in the current cycle to $604 million — within reach of 2010-11’s $644 million budget, yet still a climb toward pre-recession highs.
“It’s important to understand that at the time state funding was dropping, state enrollment was growing,” Garcia said. “So it was even more challenging for the institutions because their per-student amount dropped so considerably.”
Since fiscal year 2008-09, state operating funds for higher education have been cut by $162 million, nearly 23 percent, according to data from the state Department of Education. During the same period, enrollment increased by nearly 13 percent and now sits at around 257,000.
Seventy-eight percent of UCCS students are receiving some form of financial aid in 2013-14, to the tune of around $77.5 million. The University of Colorado system would be given another $16.5 million to keep tuition affordable, if the budget passes.
“I am always supportive of ways to keep the cost of tuition down and to keep funding the critical infrastructure of education. But we really have to look hard at the years to come,” said UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak. “I’m guardedly optimistic. It has been so long through all of these great difficulties — I want to take a very careful approach.”
Senate Bill 14-001, also dubbed the College Affordability Act, is essentially an extension of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal, and would reduce the cap on tuition increases from 9 percent to 6 percent.
“One of [the Colorado Commission on Higher Education’s] goals in its Master Plan is to restore fiscal balance by increasing state support of higher education while promoting affordability, accessibility and efficiency,” Scott said. “SB 14-001 is a big deal for all Coloradans in this regard. We seem to be taking a significant step in the right direction.”
Before the recession, all tuition increases required approval by the Legislature. Under Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration (2007-11), a Senate bill was passed that allowed tuition increases under 9 percent without legislative approval. During that time, Garcia said, some institutions increased tuition rates by up to 20 percent.
So in a way, Garcia explained, the bill is a call to keep tuition affordable while maintaining transparency and accountability within the state’s schools.
“It is important to the Legislature and to the public because they want to know that if we’re putting more money into higher ed, that the colleges and universities are going to do what they can to mitigate those tuition increases,” Garcia said.
This is one way to promote trust in a citizenry that Hickenlooper recently said will first have to see tax dollars being spent properly before they will be prepared to further support higher education.
“We know the public is not going to continue to support higher education without knowing how those tax dollars are being used,” Garcia said. “We think that is a fair request from the general public and from the General Assembly: ‘Tell us what you’re doing with that money.’ ”
Garcia said that another point of accountability deals with the graduation and retention rates of low-income and minority students, which harkens to the newly adopted Completion Incentive Model and is a key to future economic success.
“We recognize how important it is to produce more graduates — both at community colleges and four-year schools across the state — because our economic growth is really dependent on having a well-educated workforce,” Garcia said. “We’re very focused on increasing the number of degree-holders throughout our state in order to build our economy.”