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Senate passes tuition flexibility bill

Updated 9:55 a.m. May 5 – The Senate voted 34-1 Wednesday to pass Senate Bill 10-003, which would give state college boards greater control over their tuition rates, distribution of student aid and financial practices for the next five years.

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 only no vote was cast by Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver, who is leaving the legislature after winning a special election to the Denver City Council.

For students and families, the practical impact of the bill would be the prospect of tuition increases of up to 9 percent for each of the next five years without legislative oversight. Colleges could have larger increases approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

The measure moves to the House with only seven calendar days left in the 2010 legislative session.

Supporters of the measure argue that such flexibility is needed to help institutions weather the continued financial challenges facing the state system, challenges that state government currently has little spare money to cushion.

Democratic Sens. Bob Bacon of Fort Collins and Rollie Heath of Boulder both warned during preliminary debate Tuesday that the bill is a short-term fix. “it doesn’t solve our long-term problems,” said Heath.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said, “I hope there will be at least one more conversation in the building to avoid education cuts next year.” Without naming it, he was referring to his proposals to widen gambling to raise money for student financial aid.

A number of technical amendments to SB 10-191were added on the Senate floor Tueday. Of note were amendments extending the period of the program from four to five years and allowing Colorado State University flexibility in enrolling foreign students. (The original version of the bill gave that flexibility only to the University Colorado.)

Two other foreign-student amendments were ruled out of order. They would have allowed all college boards to set whatever tuition rates they chose for foreign nationals. Those amendments essentially would have provided a back-door way for colleges to offer resident tuition to undocumented students.

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 multi-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 overall 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.)

• 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. An amendment added by Senate Tuesday would require the plan to be circulated to all colleges boards and give them two weeks to comment.

• CU and CSU would be given greater flexibility to enroll more foreign students (who generally are full-pay students). The original bill gave the Colorado School of Mines total freedom to set tuition. An amendment added Tuesday puts Mines under the overall tuition plan but would give it full flexibility after that.

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.

Some legislative leaders have 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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