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Ritter: Money not sole answer for higher ed woes

The present financial crisis in higher education may be an opportunity for meaningful reform, Gov. Bill Ritter told an audience of educators and administrators Thursday.

“It is a chance to consider a desired future,” not just a opportunity to shore up the status quo, Ritter told the group, referring to declining state support for public colleges and universities. Colorado has been particularly hard hit by that trend.

“In times of limited resources we have to have the courage to adjust” how resources are allocated, the governor said, with a new emphasis on “quality and productivity.”

And, the word reform can’t just be used as a “euphemism for more resources.”

Ritter also noted that Colorado is preparing to write a new master plan for its higher education institutions. He said part of that process will examine what tradeoffs might be necessary to make the system more productive. (For more on the emerging master plan proposal, see this exclusive EdNews story.)

Ritter also used his 20-minute speech at a Denver Tech Center hotel to emotionally stress the importance of higher education.

As he has done in other education speeches, Ritter told a bit of his personal story – talking about how his parents didn’t go to college and how he worked his way through Colorado State University and the University of Colorado law school.

“It’s not just me,” he said. “Because of our public education system … we offer in this country the opportunity for people to change their status in life. … We have to make sure that continues to happen.”

He also noted, “There is a change of demographics, and we need to respond to it.”

Ritter spoke to a conference sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, which is funding a nationwide project called Making Opportunity Affordable. As part of that effort, 11 states (including Colorado) have received grants of $150,000 each to work on college access and affordability.

According to the Making Opportunity Affordable website, “Colorado sees the Making Opportunity Affordable grant as an opportunity to implement ideas and advance broader policy goals. In terms of implementation, Colorado will use MOA funds to launch an innovative test program to encourage select pilot institutions to a) enroll adult-ready students to take a positive step toward completion, and b) enroll underserved populations to take steps toward closing the achievement gap in the state. Colorado also will work on the broader goal of advancing state-level funding changes in the state, to specifically include productivity measures of performance as a component of institutional allocations.”

The phrase “specifically include productivity measures of performance as a component of institutional allocations” is higher ed-speak for “pay for performance,” a concept that will spark nervous and lively debate as the Colorado master plan process takes shape.

Colorado colleges currently are funded based on enrollment and a variety of other factors (plus ever-rising tuition), but none of those factors are particularly based on student performance, such as graduation rates and program completion.

The state does have a system of performance contracts for its public colleges, but it hasn’t been considered particularly effective. All but one of those were set to expire this year, but the Colorado Commission on Higher Education last week voted to extend all contracts until after the master plan is finished.

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