Facebook Twitter

Debate takes shape over CCHE role on tuition

Should the Colorado Commission on Higher Education have a say in state college tuition increases before or after they’re imposed on students?

Two answers have been posed to that question, one by the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee and another by the 12 executives of the state’s colleges, universities and systems.

Montage of Colorado colleges

From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

The steering committee was appointed late last year by Gov. Bill Ritter to develop a new master plan for state colleges and universities. But, because of the budget threats facing the state system, the steering committee Friday also made the short-term recommendation about tuition, suggesting that colleges that want to raise tuition more than 9 percent a yearwould have to seek CCHE approval.

The institution CEOs responded Friday to that proposal, instead suggesting that individual school and system boards be empowered to approve tuition hikes of greater than 9 percent, with the CCHE authorized to step in if it chose “and work with the governing board to modify the tuition increases” in individual cases.

The commission, meeting Friday afternoon at Red Rocks Community College, passed a resolution endorsing the steering committee proposal. But, the commissioners added an extra paragraph to the resolution noting that the steering committee, the governor and the legislature also should consider the CEOs’ proposal

The commission’s vote, and the CEOs’ proposal, are only one step in the process. Ritter, who has been a proponent of keeping tuition affordable but recently has indicated he’s open to discussing the issue, has yet to weigh in on what he’ll suggests to the legislature. Whatever tuition plan emerges is expected to become part of Senate Bill 10-003, a higher ed flexibility proposal that has been on hold during the ongoing tuition discussion. And that bill will be subject to lobbying, debate and amendment as it moves through the legislature.

The governor said recently that he hopes to make a recommendation to the legislature before the end of this month.

Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education, Friday alluded to the fact that the discussion is moving beyond the commission and the steering committee. The governor and lawmakers “will do what they do. … “All the issues will kind of be out there for them to do with as they choose.”

Here are the high points of the steering committee’s proposed tuition plan:

  • Colleges would submit four-year financial and accountability plans to CCHE that would include tuition and financial flexibility for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
  • The commission would consider and approve plans before the start of the 2011-12 budget cycle, which will begin next fall before the 2010 legislature convenes.
  • Any tuition increases larger than 9 percent would be contingent on an institution “demonstrating measures to protect affordability and accessibility for Colorado’s low and middle income students and families.” Institutions would have to consider all forms of financial aid and also work to minimize student debt.
  • CCHE could authorize plans for two years and would have to give fresh consideration to an institution’s request for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.
  • Because only some institutions can practically raise tuition by significant amounts, the state should take a “system-wide” approach to allocating state tax revenues among institutions and “avoid suspending campus operations or closing institutions.”
  • Institutions that seek financial and operational flexibility would have to clearly demonstrate the savings, efficiencies or service improvements that would be generated by that flexibility.

Additional key points of the CEOs’ proposal include:

  • Passage of a state law that would allow institutions to approve any tuition increases they want up to 9 percent.
  • Ending the current practice of requiring a portion of tuition revenue be devoted to financial aid for the lowest-income students. Many in higher education feel that recent increases in federal Pell Grants well protect the lowest-income students and that institutions need greater flexibility in providing financial aid to lower-middle and middle-income students.
  • Financial flexibility for colleges, such as more freedom from state accounting rules, should be handled separately from any controls on tuition.

For the last several years the legislature has used a footnote in the annual budget bill to set ceilings on how much state colleges and universities could increase tuition each year. The percentages have varied year to year; the ceiling for this year was 9 percent, and the same figure is proposed for next year.

The state’s budget woes have forced the legislature to reduce tax support of colleges and universities, which also happened during the last recession. Higher ed overall revenue has been maintained only with tuition increases and federal stimulus funds. The federal money runs out after the 2010-11 budget year, setting higher ed for 2011-12 cuts of perhaps $100 million or more. That’s the immediate crisis state leaders are struggling with.

It’s important to remember that the debate over tuition generally is focused on costs for resident undergraduate students. Institutions for several years have had the power to do what they will with graduate tuition and rates for out-of-state undergrads. That policy is expected to continue.

Archive of EdNews stories on the strategic planning process and higher education