Hard times for higher education in Colorado

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By Rob Witwer

It’s not news that the state budget is in crisis. Loose, some would say reckless, government spending in the good times along with lower revenues have contributed to an approximately $600 million hole in the budget. While many services will be affected, higher education will take the biggest hit.

The state general fund is the pot of money over which the General Assembly has discretionary authority. Think of it as a $7.7 billion pie. Of that, 41 percent must be spent on K-12 education and 29 percent on health and human services. That is mandatory, non-discretionary spending. Beyond that, the 13 percent spent on corrections is for all practical purposes mandatory — after all, we can’t just release hardened criminals back onto the streets.

So 83 percent of the general fund is already spoken for, before a single cut is made. The remainder of the budget is spread across everything else; agriculture, transportation, natural resources, public health and the environment and higher education.

Of these, higher education is one of the most vulnerable. According to Todd Engdahl of Education News Colorado “State colleges and universities had slowly been recovering from the last recession, receiving about 8 percent increases in tax funding for each of the last two budget years, plus growth in tuition revenue. But, Colorado’s higher-ed system still ranks near the bottom of the states in per-student spending, and state colleges spend about $750 million less a year than comparable institutions around the nation.”

In tough economic times, legislators tend to look to higher education as one of the few sources of state spending with an alternative revenue stream, increased tuition. Tuition rates have been increasing at twice the rate of inflation for decades, an unsustainable pace over the long term. The average debt-load of graduating students grows every year. Someday this has to stop — our kids can’t afford it anymore.

Although I didn’t always agree with Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, he made some interesting comments in a recent hearing of the Joint Budget Committee.

As quoted by Engdahl, Pommer said, “The problem is entirely political. (The public notices tuition increases immediately, but) if we erode quality, nobody notices it… that has been the political paradigm that has ruled higher education for the past few years. Somehow we have to change that conversation.”

As lawmakers wrestle with the question of higher education funding, at some point the focus will have to shift to the cost side of the equation. Are our colleges and universities wise stewards of the tax dollars they receive? How many Ward Churchills are on the payroll, and for how much longer can we justify paying them?

The president of Mesa State College, Tim Foster, recently moved to cut costs by eliminating a whole layer of “middle management,” the deans who added little to the school’s educational experience but much to its costs. At the same time, Foster has focused more resources on one of Mesa’s core competencies, its nursing program. Mesa is stronger for it.

Colleges and universities are not immune to the same types of difficult decisions being made by businesses and families every day. Education is too important to divert scarce resources into programs that are ancillary, at best, to the core purpose of higher ed.

I expect that conversation will be heating up sometime soon.

Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is a former member of the state House of Representatives.