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Tuition bill moves to Senate floor

After quickly working through a big stack of amendments, the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon voted 8-0 to approve Senate Bill 10-003, the complex measure that would allow state colleges and universities to raise tuition 9 percent a year – and allow the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to approve larger increases.

A key amendment added by the committee would end the new tuition system after five years. That was a condition sought by the Ritter administration.

Another amendment would require the CCHE to act within 90 days on an institution’s request for a tuition increase of more than 9 percent. The amendment also allows a college to submit a revised application if the first one was rejected by the commission.

The committee heard testimony on the bill Wednesday but ran out of time to act on the bill so had to deal with amendments and vote on Thursday.

In addition to the tuition provisions, SB 10-003 would give state colleges and universities various other types of financial flexibility. It’s being pushed as a necessary but interim fix to the fresh financial challenges facing the state system starting in 2011-12.

A commission appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter is studying longer-term proposals for funding and structuring public higher education.

The bill has been in the works since last summer but has gone through two major revisions before it even came up on Senate Ed’s agenda. The version passed ThursdaY represents a compromise among the administration, college presidents and other interests.

One witness who testified Wednesday, state Controller David McDermott, raised concerns about some bill provisions that would free colleges from various state financial rules and procedures.

None of the amendments adopted Thursday dealt with any of those parts of the bill.

Here’s a rundown of the bill’s major provisions:

• Starting in the 2011-12 school year, college boards would have the power to set tuition rates as they chose, but raises higher than 9 percent for resident undergraduates would have to be approved by CCHE.

• To get CCHE approval, a school would have to provide a four-year financial and accountability plan detailing the amount of the increase, how access and affordability would be maintained for low- and middle-income students, details on how the school is implementing flexibility in fiscal rules and how the school is ensuring levels of services and academic quality.

(These two provisions pretty much mirror the Ritter administration position as developed by the CCHE and the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee.)

• No later than next Nov. 10, colleges would have to give the CCHE and the Joint Budget Committee plans for how they would handle a possible 50 percent cut in state support in 2011-12.

• The CCHE would continue to determine the amount of state financial aid each institution receives, but individual colleges would have more flexibility to allocate that aid among their students. The state auditor would review access and affordability during its biennial reviews of state colleges and universities. (Supporters of the bill argue that recent increases in federal financial aid cover low-income students but that colleges need more flexibility to provide aid to middle-income students.)

• Colleges and universities would be allowed to set their own financial rules, be exempt from state central purchasing requirements, manage their own debts and contracts, receive additional freedom to manage construction projects and real estate transactions and greater flexibility in rehiring retired employees than is allowed in state government overall. (College presidents have been pushing for these financial flexibility provisions for more than a year, although they repeatedly stress that such flexibility alone won’t solve all of the system’s financial challenges. This is the part of the bill that McDermott questions.)

• The higher education strategic plan now being developed by an appointed committee and four advisory panels would have to be submitted by next Dec. 15.

• CU would be given greater flexibility to enroll more foreign students (who generally are full-pay students), and the Colorado School of Mines also would receive some special flexibility provisions, including total freedom to set tuition.

Higher education funding, which unlike some other state programs isn’t protected by any requirements of the state constitution or federal law, has taken major funding hits during both recessions in the last decade.

Total higher education revenue for this school year, last year and for 2010-11 is stable at just under $2 billion a year. For next year the state is providing just under $600 million. College and university budgets have been maintained only with federal stimulus money (which runs out after 2010-11) and tuition increases.

Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, has warned that state budget challenges in 2011-12 could force a $300 million cut in aid to higher ed.

Past Education News Colorado stories about higher education and the financial crisis

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