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Revised higher ed bill proposes big changes

Two top Senate leaders Wednesday unveiled a revised version of Senate Bill 10-003, the higher education flexibility bill, that would give state colleges and universities greater freedom to set their tuition rates and more flexibility in their financial affairs but also create new requirements for  maintaining student access and affordability and for improving quality.

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 proposal also would give advisory student members on college boards the right to vote – but only on budget matters. (That wouldn’t apply to the University of Colorado Board of Regents, whose members are elected by the voters.)

Also up consideration at the Statehouse is a resolution to allow video keno games in bars and restaurants, with revenue going to colleges. 

The rewritten version of SB 10-003, originally introduced last Jan. 13, will have its first hearing, in the Senate Education Committee, on April 28, just 10 working days before the legislature must adjourn. It was unveiled during a “stakeholder” meeting Tuesday.

The bill has its origins in a study committee that met last summer but since January has been the subject of lengthy behind-the-scenes discussions about tuition policy, how much financial freedom colleges should have and how to best deal with an intensified financial crunch that’s expected to hit higher ed beginning in 2011-12.

Senate Majority Leader John Morse, R-Colorado Springs, and Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, have been leading the effort. College presidents, who’ve long sought more freedom to manage their budgets, the Department of Higher Education and the business-backed civic group Colorado Concern also have been part of the talks.

The proposed revisions to the bill cover a wide range of issues.

Tuition and budgets

Beginning in 2011-10, college boards could set their own resident and non-resident tuition rates. (Currently annual ceilings are set by the legislature.)

But, boards could not raise resident undergraduate tuition more than 9 percent a year unless a higher increase was needed to cover “significant decreases” in direct state support.

Beginning next Nov. 10 (and every Nov. 10 after that), each college and university would have to submit detailed, five-year financial projections to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the Joint Budget Committee. The projections would have to include projected tuition revenue, other sources of revenue and funding plans for various levels of increase or decrease in direct state funding.

Those reports also would have to include a governing board’s plan for preserving accessibility and affordability for low- and middle-income students, plans for use of need-based financial aid, and plans for improving student retention.

By next Dec. 10, and every December thereafter, the CCHE would have to give the JBC an overall higher ed system plan for handling reductions in state support.

College quality

The revised bill also would require each governing board to annually give the commission a five-year plan for performance goals in areas such as access and affordability, improved student success, improved quality of instruction, improved operational efficiency and substantial additional information.

The CCHE would be required to establish benchmarks by which to evaluate each institution’s plan and annually review progress. Those progress reports would have to be submitted to the JBC.

Institutions that failed to meet one or more benchmarks by 5 percent or more would lose some of its tuition-setting freedom.

(The bill would repeal the existing system of performance contracts.)


The bill also would change the current controls over numbers of resident and non-resident students, allowing colleges to admit as many non-residents as they chose. But, colleges would have to admit all qualified Colorado applicants based on admissions requirements, plus the additional 20 percent of Colorado students colleges can admit for other reasons. (That’s the so-called “window.”)

Financial operations

The revised bill also proposes various changes in the degree to which certain state construction, purchasing and financial rules and procedures apply to colleges and universities. It also contains some provisions that would apply only to the Colorado School of Mines.

The higher ed flexibility discussion comes at a time when college and university spending has been maintained only through increased tuition and federal stimulus funds. Some legislators fear higher education may have to be cut by $300 million in 2011-12, with a similar cut for K-12 aid.

It’s unclear how the bill might fit – or conflict – with the ongoing higher education strategic plan study that was commissioned by outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter. The administration in the past has urged that no major changes be made in higher education until after the strategic plan is finished at the end of this year.

College presidents and some legislators have been pressing for action to be taken sooner.

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