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College finance idea hits nerve

Sensitive future debates about funding state colleges – and other issues – were previewed Wednesday as a state advisory panel held a key meeting in its process of drafting a new strategic plan for the state system.

The liveliest discussion was sparked by a misunderstanding over a subcommittee idea about how to divide state tax dollars among different kinds of colleges.

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.

While that misunderstanding was quickly smoothed over, the question of focusing scarce tax revenue on the colleges that most need it is sure to come up again during the deliberations of the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee.

Three other big ideas surfaced Wednesday received less immediate attention but are certain to be debated later.

The steering committee, initially created by Gov. Bill Ritter and then formalized by the new higher ed financial flexibility law (Senate Bill 10-003) has given itself an October deadline to finish a proposed strategic plan for consideration by the new governor and lawmakers during the 2011 legislative session.

The panel is wresting with such issues as the funding crisis facing state colleges; low college attendance and completion by Hispanics, the fastest growing segment of Colorado’s population; whether the state has the right mix of colleges, and whether the current system allows easy enough student movement between colleges.

The steering committee is being advised by four subcommittees, and Wednesday’s meeting was the first opportunity for detailed reports from those panels. Subcommittees studying accessibility and the “pipeline” to college made presentations. (Detailed reports will come next month from the subcommittees considering financial sustainability and the role and mission of state colleges.)

Given that the committee is moving toward decision making, Wednesday’s meeting drew larger attendance than has been the case for past meetings, including University of Colorado President Bruce Benson; School of Mines President Bill Scoggins; Nancy McCallin, president of the Community College System, and a bevy of higher ed lobbyists.

A financial concept advanced by the Accessibility Subcommittee got things stirred up during the meeting.

Benson said he was “very concerned” about a proposal that seemed to suggest taking some tuition revenue and institutionally raised financial aid money from richer institutions (such as CU) and giving it to other schools, like state four-year colleges.

Meg Porfido, chair of the Accessibility Subcommittee, said, “That was not the intention.”

Two Democratic legislators. Reps. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge on speakerphone and Rep. Dickie Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder in person, also chimed in to oppose any shift of tuition and financial aid funds from CU.

“That’s not the proposal,” said Jim Lyons, steering committee co-chair.

Panel member Don Elliman, with a little irritation in his voice, noted that there was a wording problem in an initial draft of the subcommittee document that was corrected before Wednesday’s meeting.

Don Elliman
Don Elliman

Lyons also reminded Benson that the subcommittees were carefully constructed to include representation from all levels of the higher ed system. Later in the meeting, after Benson had left, Lyons joked, “I was tempted to tell him we put that in there just to see if he was paying attention.”

(One lawmaker told Education News Colorado later that CU officials had sent around an e-mail raising the alarm.)

The idea that the subcommittee is considering will be controversial enough if it’s eventually adopted as part of the strategic plan. That concept is reduction of state per-student aid at schools that have greater capacity to raise tuition and outside funds – like CU-Boulder – so that scarce state tax dollars can be concentrated at schools like Metropolitan State College and other four-year schools, which serve higher percentages of first-generation, minority and low-income students.

“There are market forces that allow different kinds of institutions to raise different amounts of money,” Porfido said.

CU President Bruce Benson
CU President Bruce Benson
Oliver Morrison

“Other people perhaps don’t try as hard at CSU, Mines and CU,” Benson replied. “Other institutions should be out working on this [fund raising] too.”

Earlier, Porfido said, “If you’re talking about limited unfds … more general fund [state tax dollars] should be put toward the base and middle tiers,” referring to community and four-year colleges. “That’s not thinking that everybody loves.”

The Accessibility Subcommittee floated two other interesting ideas, offering automatic college admission to Colorado students who have appropriate high school records and letting state-funded financial aid go directly to students rather than to institutions.

Among its tentative suggestions, the Pipeline Subcommittee proposed consideration of further integration of the departments of education and higher education.

But, none of those three ideas generated much discussion.

The steering committee next month plans to hear reports from the sustainability and mission subcommittees, do a draft of the strategic plan in August and conduct a series of public meetings around the state in October.

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