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Ritter gets his higher ed plan

Gov. Bill Ritter Thursday urged incoming governor John Hickenlooper and the legislature to consider seriously the future of state colleges and universities, saying, “They can defer this problem for a time, or they can understand the urgency.”

The governor made his comments after formally receiving a report written by the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee, a panel he appointed late last year.

The plan, titled “The Degree Dividend, Building our economy and preserving our way of life,” argues that higher education is an asset that supports Colorado’s quality of life, that the state system “is dramatically off track” and falling behind in meeting state needs and that Colorado needs to both increase funding for higher ed and focus on significantly improving completion rates for certificates and degrees.

The report recommends increased spending on higher ed and maintaining affordability; reduction of regional, ethic and income gaps in admission and completion; improvements in the pipeline from high school to college, and a stronger oversight role for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

(See this Education News Colorado story for more details on the strategic plan, and read the full text here.)

The panel also urged that a funding proposal for higher education be placed on the November 2011 ballot. The strategic plan argues that while state colleges and universities have become very efficient in the face of budget cuts, the state system now is at a turning point and will deteriorate without additional support. Presuming such a funding proposal is developed, the legislature could put it on the ballot with a two-thirds vote.

Because of the requirement that voters approve new taxes, Ritter said, “This is their decision” and that citizens need to ask, “What kind of state do you want to have? What kind of higher education system do you want to have?”

(The subtitle of the report is “Colorado Must Decide.”)

The governor agreed with the report in saying, “We’re at a crossroads. We need to do all we can to convince the people of this state.” But he wouldn’t say what kind of funding proposal he’d support, saying that’s up to the new governor and legislature.

Higher education director Rico Munn talked about the strategic plan on Nov. 4, 2010. Jim Lyons, cochair of the study panel, is at right.
Higher education director Rico Munn talked about the strategic plan on Nov. 4, 2010. Jim Lyons, cochair of the study panel, is at right.

Some college presidents, like Bruce Benson of the University of Colorado and Tim Foster of Mesa State, have reservations about the report’s recommendation that the CCHE assumes greater oversight powers.

Asked what he’d do to convince them to work for the greater good of the state system, Ritter said, “What I’d say to them is to go back and read their de Tocqueville,” citing the 19th century French thinker who argued that enlightened self-interest is often served by also serving a larger cause.

The governor’s office was packed for the event with steering committee and CCHE members, college presidents and other higher ed functionaries, lobbyists and reporters.

The strategic plan also was formally presented Thursday to the CCHE, the group that now is charged with modifying the document if it chooses and pushing its recommendations with other state officials.

Many commission members participated in the strategic plan effort and are already familiar with the document, so there wasn’t extensive discussion.

Commissioner Larry Beckner of Grand Junction did raise some mild concerns about the plan, saying he thinks it needs a bit more more stress on what’s right with the higher education system and more detail on what increased funding would buy in terms of increased enrollment.

Beckner also said there needs to be clarity about the future role of CCHE. “To me, local governance is so important.”

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