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Tuition plans run the gamut

Tuition flexibility plans by Colorado colleges and universities range from annual increases of about 9 percent to hikes as large as 25 percent.

But those plans are based on a variety of “what if” scenarios and a lot can happen between now and next spring, when college trustees actually will set the tuition rates students will pay in 2011-12.

The biggest unknown is how much state tax support will be available for higher ed next year. The Department of Higher Education currently is working on the assumption that figure will be $555 million.

But some budget alarmists in the legislature fear it could go as low as about $300 million, a number that could drive larger tuition increases than any proposed in the plans.

College leaders have been uncomfortable about making tuition proposals so many months before budget numbers finally fall into place next April or May. Most of the proposals submitted are watermarked with “Draft,” Discussion Draft,” “Deliberative Work Document” or “Proposed.”

The proposals were prompted by a new state law allows colleges to apply to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for permission to raise resident undergraduate tuition by more than 9 percent a year. Institutions are allowed to make raises of up to 9 percent without state approval.

Here are snapshots of what’s being proposed:

CU & CSU

University of Colorado – A 9.5 percent increase is proposed for resident undergraduate students in 2011-12. The plan includes raises “up to 9 percent” for school years 2012-13 through 2015-16. (Read CU proposal.)

Colorado State University System – The CSU proposal is more complex and would generate increased tuition revenue by requiring Fort Collins students to take more credits to qualify as full time and by eliminating a credit hour discount at Pueblo. CSU also is studying whether to charge differential tuition for high-cost programs. (Read CSU plan.)

The two systems released their plans previously. The department on Wednesday released proposals made by other institutions. The Colorado School of Mines chose not to submit a flexibility plan. (Electronic copies of the following plans aren’t yet available.)

Larger institutions

Colorado Community College System – The system proposed a “what-if” set of tuition increases, based on varying levels of state support. With hold-the-line state support next year ($119.5 million for the community colleges), tuition wouldn’t rise more than 9 percent. If state aid drops to $109 million, a 15.7 percent increase would be needed.

Assuming a moderate continuing decline in state support, the system would need 11.2 percent increases in 2012-13 and 2013-14 but no more than 9 percent in the two following school years.

A more severe decline in state aid would require 12.5 percent increases in 2012-13 and 2013-14, the proposal says.

Metropolitan State College of Denver – The college says it has two options for 2011-12. The first is raising tuition 21 percent but reducing some fees by rolling them into tuition bills. That would yield a combined tuition and fee increases of 16.5 percent. If Metro trustees decide not to change the fee structure, the proposed tuition increase alone would be 12.5 percent.

University of Northern Colorado – UNC is proposing increases of 15 percent for the next two school years, 12 percent in 2013-14 and 9 percent for each of the two following years. The UNC proposal is among the most detailed.

Regional state colleges

Adams State – The Alamosa school suggests two levels of tuition increases, based on different amounts of state support. With state aid of $11.8 million a year, the college says it would need 11 percent tuition increases in each of the next five school years.

If state support is only $10.8 million a year, the college “reluctantly requests authority” for a 25 percent hike next year, 20 percent in 2012-13, 12 percent in 2013-14 and 9 percent in each of the two following years.

Fort Lewis College – The Durango college also paints two tuition possibilities. Under the first, the definition of full time would be raised from 10 credit hours to 12, and tuition would be raised 9 percent a year for five years. The second plan would increase tuition 20 percent in each of the next two years and 9 percent in each of the following three years.

Mesa State College – The application from the Grand Junction school hasn’t been formally accepted by the department because it doesn’t meet the format requirements set by the commission. The current draft says Mesa can contain tuition increases to 9 percent or less in the next two schools years unless state support is cut by 10 percent or more from the current assumption of $555 million for all colleges in 2011-12.

If that happens, the application says, “The college reserves the right to revise its FAP accordingly, based on new information.” FAP is higher ed jargon for financial accountability plan, the formal name for the tuition permission requests.

Western State College – The Gunnison college has three tuition scenarios, again based on different levels of state support. Those are: Best situation – 11.6 percent a year for five years. Middle situation – 16 percent a year. Worst case – 19.1 percent.

The colleges have varying proposals for protecting affordability for lower- and middle-income students, including reliance on federal Pell Grants and rolling a percentage of new tuition revenue back into financial aid.

The proposals are so different partly because the financial profiles of state colleges and systems vary widely, with different levels of state support; different mixes of resident, non-resident and graduate students; and varying abilities to raise government and private grants.

As UNC President Kay Norton aptly notes, Colorado doesn’t have a higher education “system,” it has an “array” of colleges and universities.

Non-resident and graduate student tuition rates aren’t covered by the flexibility law; college trustees can set them as they choose.

What’s next

The commission is expected to be briefed on the proposals at its meeting Thursday but isn’t scheduled to rule on the applications until December. In the meantime, a department team is evaluating them and a subcommittee of commission members will review them and make recommendations to the full CCHE.

The tuition law, which includes other financial flexibility provisions designed to make things easier for colleges in tough financial times, expires in five years. State officials hope that the current revenue crisis will ease – and that a new higher education strategic plan will be in place – by then.

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