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Higher ed panel wraps it up

The committee that’s been studying the future of state colleges and universities finished its work Wednesday with unanimous approval of a strategic plan that warns of the looming crisis facing higher education and recommends increased tax support for the system.

“I think it’s a product that we can all be proud of. I hope it just doesn’t end up on somebody’s shelf,” said committee co-chair Jim Lyons.

The plan will be formally presented to Gov. Bill Ritter and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education at a meeting Nov. 4. The ball then will be in the commission’s court to refine the strategic plan if it chooses, adopt it and make recommendations to the legislature.

“We will use it to the very best of our ability,” Jim Polsfut, a member of the steering committee and also chair of the CCHE, said Wednesday. “I don’t know of any particular disagreement by CCHE members right now.”

The 12-member steering committee included Polsfut and CCHE member Greg Stevinson, and several other commission members served on the four subcommittees that developed preliminary recommendations for the steering group.

Ritter, who kicked off the whole process late last year by appointing the steering committee, isn’t running for office so won’t be involved when the debate about the future of higher education shifts to the Capitol next year.

Don Elliman, an ex officio member of the steering committee, noted the unpredictable future facing the proposed strategic plan. “If the new administration doesn’t buy into it, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.” (Elliman is state chief operating officer and a key Ritter advisor.)

The committee’s strategic plan is titled “The Degree Dividend, Building our economy and preserving our way of life. The document’s cover also includes the admonition, “Colorado Must Decide.”

The document makes three key assertions:

  • Higher education is an asset that supports Colorado’s quality of life.
  • The state system “is dramatically off track” and falling behind in meeting state needs.
  • Colorado needs to both increase funding for higher ed and focus on significantly improving completion rates for certificates and degrees.

The plan offers four broad recommendations, backed up by specific suggestions for achieving them:

  • The state must increase its investment and ensure affordability for students.
  • Regional, ethnic and income gaps in admission, retention and completion must be reduced.
  • Systematic improvements are needed in the pipeline for students to move from high school into college.
  • The structure of higher ed must be set up to allow for advancement of statewide priorities – such as increased enrollment and completion – that might be beyond the missions of individual institutions.

The text of the report also evaluates the likelihood of achieving those recommendations under each of four funding scenarios – labeled Accelerated Erosion, Losing Ground, Restoration and Competitive. While steering committee members acknowledge that the short- and mid-term funding prospects are bleak for higher ed, they clearly support the Competitive model, which would involve tripling of state support to about $1.5 billion a year.

Many observers believe the most likely financial prospect is Accelerated Erosion in 2011-12, which the committee defined as state funding of less than $550 million a year.

(Read the final text of the full report.)

Although the report was virtually done except for last-minute tweaks and printing, committee members couldn’t resist reprising discussions that have dominated the process since the panel’s first meeting, held nine months to the day before Wednesday’s final session.

The steering committee’s work and the proposed strategic plan surfaced a number of touchy issues, including funding, the role of the CCHE, the organization and capacities of the state system and the missions of individual colleges.

Here are highlights from (and background on) the last-minute conversation Wednesday:

Funding

Polsfut wondered if the committee should be more specific about possible sources of additional revenue for higher ed. (The plan lists possible sources but makes no recommendations.)

“I think there are some jurisdictional limits on what we can say,” said Lyons, meaning those decisions should be up to CCHE and the legislature. “I think we’ve reached the limit.”

The other co-chair, Dick Monfort, said he felt the panel should specifically recommend that a funding proposal be made to voters in 2011. Members agreed with that idea. “No reason we shouldn’t hold their feet to the fire,” said Lyons, speaking of legislators, who would have to decide on any state-proposed ballot measure.

Monfort also raised the issue of whether the report should go into more detail about how money is allocated to individual colleges, but Lyons said, “I think it would be usurping the CCHE.”

‘Governance’ vs. ‘oversight’

Steering committee members have made it clear they favor a stronger CCHE, an idea resisted by some college presidents and trustees. In an effort to ease that sensitivity, the panel agreed to scrub the strategic plan of the word “governance.” Lyons said, “We’re emphasizing coordination and oversight in place of regulation. … Governance for individual institutions will remain the same.” (All state colleges currently have their own appointed boards of trustees. The University of Colorado, Colorado State University and community college boards oversee multiple campuses.)

The plan recommends that CCHE launch a study of each college and university’s role and mission and make recommendations to the legislature. Some college leaders, such as Metro State President Steve Jordan, believe the state system currently is weighted too much toward research universities at one end and community colleges at the other.

Several panel members agree with Jordan’s view that the state needs to increase capacity at four-year institutions to serve the needs of the minority and first-generation students who will be the largest group of new students in the future.

Some universities, particularly the University of Colorado system, vigorously disagree with the notion that they aren’t able to serve new kinds of students and are fearful of a potential funding shift that could affect them.

Support of graduate programs

The proposed plan favors – in concept – giving more state funds directly to students (currently done in a partial fashion through the College Opportunity Fund) and less directly to institutions (known as fees for service). That prospect that makes some institutions, particularly those with expensive graduate programs, uneasy.

(The plan also suggested that colleges be funded partly on the basis of performance – like graduation rates – but not until after overall financial support of higher education increases.)

The strategic plan specifically mentions only two expensive graduate programs – CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado State University’s veterinary medicine program – as services that might need direct state support.

There was some discussion Wednesday about whether the committee should expand that list, but it decided not to do so. “The specific balance has to be decided by the CCHE,” said member John Bliss.

Metro’s Jordan has been the most supportive of the strategic plan’s direction, while leaders at CU, the University of Northern Colorado, Mesa State College and, to a lesser extent, the Colorado School of Mines have raised more concerns.

(Read the institutions’ formal comments here.)
The idea of writing a new strategic plan started jelling in the Ritter administration during the summer of 2009 but initially was delayed after then-higher ed director David Skaggs abruptly left his job, reportedly after a disagreement with Ritter over the plan process.

The governor and new director Rico Munn got the idea going again late that year, and Ritter appointed panel members just before 2009 ended. Committee deliberations bogged down a bit in August, when the time came to start making specific recommendations, but in the end the panel met its deadline and seemed happy with its work.

“I think the report as modified is perfect,” said Stevinson.

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