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Higher ed panel gets down to it

The committee assigned to craft a new strategic plan for Colorado colleges and universities moves into a new phase of its work this week when it sits down to review recommendations from four subcommittees and plan next steps.

The Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee has scheduled a six-hour “retreat” Tuesday at Auraria’s Tivoli Student Union.

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 14-member panel, initially created by Gov. Bill Ritter late last year and then formalized by a 2010 law, hopes to have a report ready for the lame-duck governor and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education by Nov. 4. Before then, the committee hopes to hold a series of meetings around the state and gather comments from the broader higher education community. The steering committee currently is scheduled to meet four more times before Nov. 4.

Four subcommittees have focused on specific issues and have made draft recommendations to the main group.

The subcommittees include both steering committee members and outside experts. The membership of all five groups is heavy on current and former CCHE members, college administrators and business and civic leaders. There are no students, faculty or elected officials on the committees, although there has been some outreach to those groups.

To provide a sense for what the steering committee will be working with, here are highlights of subcommittee recommendations and links to full texts. (Recommendations are those available on the committee’s website as of July 30.) Many will spark tough discussions by the steering committee.

The toughest issues likely will be financial, including suggestions that state support be shifted from the current enrollment-based system and instead be based on the particular needs of individual campuses and/or institutional ability to meet state-mandated goals, like completion rates.

Accessibility Subcommittee

This panel was assigned to develop recommendations concerning to accessibility of higher education for all kinds of students.

It is suggesting a better integrated higher ed system, some revisions in the current “tiered” system of schools based on selectivity, more flexibility in funding of individual schools so as to better support underserved groups of students, increased financial aid, automatic acceptance of qualified students at state schools, easier transfer among campuses, 100 percent financial aid for qualified low-income students and increased efforts to ensure more students complete college.

One implication of the recommendations is the idea that state funding should be concentrated at four-year schools and community colleges, with universities being allowed to rely more on tuition. This likely will be one of the toughest issues facing the steering committee.

Mission Subcommittee

This group studied issues of how the state higher ed system should be structured and the appropriate missions of various institutions.

Its recommendations include keeping the current structure of institutional and system boards but giving more power to CCHE, including the ability to allocate money to campuses based on how they meet performance goals set by the commission.

The panel also recommends reallocation of state support to increase enrollment at state colleges that are less selective and that have lower per-student costs.

During discussions in this committee and others it has been repeatedly noted that Colorado higher ed enrollment is unbalanced, with most students concentrated at the lower (community colleges) and higher (universities) ends of the spectrum. There’s smaller enrollment in the middle, at the state’s four-year colleges.

Some of those involved in the planning effort believe that expanding enrollment in those colleges would be a good way to get more underserved students into college.

Pipeline Subcommittee

This subcommittee was responsible for issues such as the number of high school grads who don’t continue into postsecondary education and high remediation rates for those who do.

Its recommendations include various ideas to address those problems, including earlier and easier access to college-level courses, improved remediation programs and efforts to get more adult learners into higher education.

Sustainability Subcommittee

This is the “money” panel, assigned the ticklish task of proposing solutions for higher ed’s daunting financial challenges.

Its proposal include $760 million a year as the minimum, maintenance level of annual state tax support for higher ed, with reasonable future growth; use of performance measures to allocate state funds among colleges; a continued emphasis on efficiency, and local tax support of community colleges.

The group also studied possible new revenue sources for higher ed, including increased income or sales taxes, a services tax, minerals taxes and statewide and local property taxes (summary).

The higher education system is at a crossroads because of state revenue pressures that have forced use of federal stimulus funds and increased tuition to compensate for cuts in state support. There’s little question that higher ed will receive less direct state support than the $620.8 million in the current budget, and cuts could be deeper.

Colorado has a long history of committees studying the future of higher education but a mixed record of implementing their recommendations. Studies were done for 1993-98, in 2001-02 and in 2003.

The 2010 steering committee’s ultimate recommendations will be launched into an uncertain political and financial future.

The panel’s creator, Ritter, leaves office in January, and the November elections could change the composition and even control of the legislature. If state revenue problems don’t ease, broader financial issues could overshadow discussion of higher ed’s future.

And any new tax revenues for colleges and universities or a broader state fiscal fix would require voter approval.

While a number of civic groups and policymakers have talked about crafting a proposal for the 2011 November ballot, no specific proposals have been floated. The exception is two 2011 ballot titles filed under the auspices of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute. Among other provisions, they would lower state sales taxes but extend that tax to services and create a graduated income tax structure.

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