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Ritter: “Tuition flexibility is not tuition autonomy”

Gov. Bill Ritter publicly weighed in on the growing discussion over college tuition Thursday, giving an expanded view on where he stands on the question of letting college trustees set their own tuition rates.

Gov. Bill Ritter and higher education director Rico Munn spokes to reporters about the higher education strategic plan on Feb. 25, 2010.
Gov. Bill Ritter and higher education director Rico Munn spokes to reporters about the higher education strategic plan on Feb. 25, 2010.

Ritter met with reporters Thursday in an effort to raise the visibility of the ongoing higher education strategic planning process, which he launched late last year.

The session came just a day after the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee conceptually approved a proposal that would allow state colleges and universities to set their own tuition and financial aid policies – after review by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. (See this story for details.)

Ritter didn’t comment directly on the proposal, which isn’t yet in final written form.

“We hope there are recommendations … that resolve some of the short-term [financial] challenges,” he said.

But, he did say, “Tuition flexibility is not tuition autonomy,” adding “institutional assurances of access and affordability … have to be part of the plan.”

He added later, “By providing financial flexibility you have to change the financial aid model.”

The Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee hopes to get a written recommendation to Ritter and the commission next week. (The panel’s next meeting is March 5.)

Asked when he might make some recommendation to the legislature, Ritter said, “I would say late March.” A higher ed financial flexibility bill is being held up in the General Assembly until the governor makes proposals for a fiscal fix that state in the 2011-12 school year.

Ritter has long been an advocate of low tuition, citing the need to maintain college access for low- and middle-income families. Asked why his views seem to have evolved, the governor cited the unanticipated blows that the recession has struck on state revenues and spending.

The governor also defended the composition of the steering committee and its subcommittees, which are heavily weighted toward present and former CCHE members and higher education administrators. There are no faculty or student members.

“By design this was to be a broad look” and needed people who could take a statewide view. Faculty members sometimes have “a parochial attitude,” Ritter said.

Both the governor and state higher ed chief Rico Munn stressed that the process is open and that the views of various interest groups will be solicited. “We’re inviting input from all different areas,” Munn said.

Some college presidents and business leaders have suggested that state colleges be converted to self-governing public authorities similar to University Hospital.

Ritter said Thursday that he’d previously told legislative leaders “We’re not going to entertain that.”

The governor also was asked if he has any concerns about the ultimate impact of the strategic plan, given that he’ll be ready to leave office at about the time the plan is finished.

He said higher education will be “a really important issue” for whoever succeeds him as governor and that “I’m still going to work on it” after leaving office.

Also speaking at Thursday’s briefing were CCHE Chair Jim Polsfut and Jim Lyons, co-chair of the steering committee.

EdNews backgrounder on the strategic planning effort

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