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Slow going for higher ed panel

“We’re going to have to meet again.”

That was the conclusion Jim Lyons came to after nearly four hours of the Wednesday meeting of the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee.

The group was hoping to work its way through and polish up a strategic plan rough draft prepared by Department of Higher Education staff (see document). But after first deciding it didn’t like the “theme” suggested by DHE chief Rico Munn, the panel then got bogged down on the toughest issue it faces – changing the way state colleges and universities are funded.

At the very start of the meeting, Munn said, “We really need to walk out of here today with a consensus on the philosophical pieces” of the draft. That hadn’t happened by the time Lyons decided another meeting was necessary.

A Denver lawyer who co-chairs the group, Lyons professed himself “thoroughly confused” by the finance discussion and asked Munn and his staff to do some additional work on the issue before a special meeting of the committee on Sept. 3.

The group hadn’t been scheduled to convene again until Sept. 22. But it’s planning a mid-September set of public meetings around the state to gather comment on the plan, so it will need to have a document in some sort of shape by then. “We’re running out of time,” Lyons said.

The finance discussion was kicked off by Co-chair Dick Monfort, who repeated the proposal he’s been making for months – that state tax support for higher education should go directly to students to spend at whatever state colleges they choose.

“If you’re ever going to pass any tax increase, the money has to go to the students,” Monfort said.

State aid currently is distributed through a formula that allocates some funds on a per-student basis and other money based on special costs and services at individual campuses, such as those associated with the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus. Because of declining state support for higher ed, legislators have juggled the current system every year primarily to ensure that each campus bears a proportional share of cuts.

Some committee members share Monfort’s general view but would like to create a system that also rewards campuses for performance (like higher graduation rates) and incentivizes colleges to serve under-represented groups of students and meet other state goals.

Committee member Russ George, director of the state Department of Transportation, dissented, saying, “I’m still unpersuaded that giving money to the students will achieve the goals we want.” Noting the financial stresses facing higher ed, George asked, “Why would you do that at a time like this? … What’s the point of adding stress?”

George said the funding system shouldn’t be changed until extra revenue is available.

Everyone agreed that such a new system would create “winners and losers” among state colleges. Committee member Greg Stevinson noted the longstanding political realities of higher ed and said funding shifts would send “all the institutions running to the governor and the legislature.”

As the discussion got more and more complicated, committee member Ray Baker quipped, “This should be real easy to explain to the public.”

Colorado colleges and universities have annual revenues of some $2 billion, but about three-quarters of that comes from tuition. And in the last two budget years, some state tax dollars have been replaced with federal stimulus funding, which won’t be available in the future.

Some observers fear tax support could drop to around $300 million in 2011-12 if the state revenue slump continues.

It’s estimated that $1.1 billion in extra revenue would be needed to restore higher ed to the level of support it would have now if enrollment growth and inflation had been accounted for over the last decade.

Committee doesn’t like “big idea”

As a theme for the committee’s report, Munn and DHE staff suggested “5 by 10,” meaning the state should strive to increase higher ed graduation and completion rates by 5 percent a year for the next 10 years.

Doing so would create about 670,000 additional degrees. Colorado state institutions currently award about 41,000 degrees and certificates a year.

Panel members weren’t sure that struck the right tone. “I’d like to see it really connected to jobs,” said member Meg Porfido. “I see this as a tactic, not a strategy,” said Lyons.

The staff will go back to the drawing board.

Does the public care?

The board also heard a presentation on public attitudes about higher education and how to fund it, given by pollster Lori Wiegel of Public Opinion Strategies.

Wiegel, relying on a 2008 study and on more recent work in her field, said, “Higher education tends to fall to the bottom of the list” when people are asked about a set of government needs. “Cute little kindergartners trump college students.”

“They perceive you as having an income stream [tuition] that is independent,” she said, adding that the public often is supportive of restoring budget cuts but less interested in expansion. Voters do understand the connection between higher education and good jobs, she said.

“We are still in that fear-of-the-future mode,” Wiegel said, referring to the economy. “Confidence in the government has plummeted,” especially concerning the federal government. “We are seeing that creep in at the state level in Colorado.”

Monfort had his own take on public attitudes. “I think the perception is that if you’re funding higher education, you’re paying for a bunch of liberal professors who work five hours a week.”

The steering committee hopes to have a final report ready for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the governor by Nov. 4.

Previously: Higher ed panel wrestles with tough questions

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