Higher ed needs the public’s support

-A A +A
By Greg Romberg

The day we took Alex to college in August 2008, we were eating lunch in the cafeteria at Corbett Hall. I looked up to see Larry Penley, the president of Colorado State University, and some of his staff members getting lunch. As the vast majority of the students who were eating were brand-new incoming freshman, it didn’t surprise me too much that none of the students seemed to recognize him. But, as the president of the university was in a room with hundreds of new students and their parents, it did surprise and disappoint me that he and his staff got their lunches, took them to the most isolated corner of the cafeteria, and left without making contact with any members of the new class of 2012.

Fast-forward to earlier this month when we attended Alex’s graduation ceremony for the College of Liberal Arts. When liberal arts dean Ann Gill introduced CSU’s current president, Tony Frank, he got a rock-star welcome from the graduates. As they were still cheering for him, he took the microphone from the podium and headed out onto the floor where the graduates were assembled. Before he delivered any remarks, he went and interviewed three random members of the graduating class (including Michelle Jones from Pine, who attended Conifer High School).
He asked each of the students who they were, where they were from, their favorite memories of CSU, and whom they wanted to thank for positive aspects of their CSU experiences. The stark contrast between the presidents of CSU on Alex’s first and last days as a student there was telling. It was a remarkable snapshot of the improved leadership situation we have in Fort Collins since Frank replaced Penley.
Colorado’s institutions of higher education are woefully underfunded and have continually been forced to find ways to do more with less and to find new resources to provide the kind of educational opportunities our young people both need and deserve. I’ve often said that the success that Frank and his contemporaries at other public higher education institutions in Colorado have had in finding private support for needed capital construction on campuses across the state has masked the fact that public support for higher education has declined precipitously. When campus visits suggest a level of prosperity because people see construction activities for brick and mortar, it becomes harder to make the case that we as a society need to find a consistent and dedicated funding source for public higher education.
If we continue to force the cost of a college education more and more onto the backs of students and their parents through ever-increasing tuition costs (CSU’s tuition is going up 9 percent for in-state students next year, and other public institutions have had to increase tuition as well), we run the risk of limiting access to higher education to future generations of Coloradans.  
Colorado taxpayers and students deserve outstanding leaders on the campuses of our public institutions of higher education. But those leaders deserve meaningful and ongoing public support. As the economy continues to improve, we must make a more meaningful investment in higher education and make the systemic changes necessary to ensure that support won’t be slashed the next time our economy turns south.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.