Higher ed wears target in budget battle

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By Greg Romberg

Whenever Colorado’s budget is in distress, it seems that the biggest target is always on the back of higher education. The four biggest pots of general-fund moneys in the state budget are Medicaid, prisons, K-12 education and higher education. For practical, political and legal reasons, the first three are generally pretty protected. Higher education is often left to bear the biggest brunt of the reductions.

In addition to the difficulties in cutting the other biggest users of state funds, a rationale for cutting higher education funds is that public colleges and universities can generate more money by raising tuition. This situation has led us to the dilemma where the state’s general-fund contribution to public higher education is at historically low levels, and tuition costs have increased. College and university administrators now argue that because less state money comes in their doors, they should be under significantly less state oversight by both the legislature and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. While it is understandable that administrators want this flexibility, they must remember that Coloradans have been providing for higher education through their tax dollars longer than we have been a state. Current funding difficulties should not be an excuse to forget that investment or for policies that exclude access for our state’s residents if increases in tuition make college unaffordable.

Higher education funding is a complicated mixture of state dollars, private donations, tuition payments, grants, sponsored research and entrepreneurial activities. This year’s state reductions were largely mitigated by an influx of federal dollars from the stimulus plan. The combination of these longer-term trends with reductions throughout state government is forcing higher education leaders to look for both immediate and longer-term fixes.

While fund-raising has always been a priority of public institutions of higher education, those efforts are now even more important and have taken a higher profile. The new chancellor and president of Colorado State University recently announced the formation of the Campaign for Colorado State University, a half-billion-dollar fund-raising campaign that was already over one-half completed before it was announced. The University of Colorado has one of the country’s premier public education foundations, and all the other schools have made fund-raising a priority as well.

Additionally, there are a variety of conversations about asking voters to consider a dedicated funding source for higher education sometime in the future.

Against this backdrop, there is a fundamental value that must be acknowledged and to which a renewed commitment must be made. It is not only our collective responsibility to provide higher education to the residents of this state, but it is also a necessary investment in our future. As part of a larger discussion about the state’s fiscal policy, we must ensure that sufficient moneys are available to provide higher education to prepare for the future of our state and the people who will live here. A significant part of fund-raising efforts should be directed to tuition relief, and any voter-approved funding should be structured in a way to ensure that Colorado maintains an excellent system of public higher education that is available and affordable to everyone who lives in our state.

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.