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Higher ed panel wrestles with tough questions

Big ideas were in the air Tuesday as the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee started its formal review of subcommittee proposals for the future of the state’s colleges and universities.

Among them were such sticky issues as:

  • What’s an “adequate” level of state tax support for colleges and universities?
  • Should communities be allowed to raise taxes to supplement the funding of local colleges?
  • Should state support be given directly to students rather than institutions?
  • Should college funding be tied to outcomes like student retention and graduation rather than enrollment?
  • Can direct student funding and outcome-based funding somehow be combined?
  • Should the state have more power to regulate individual institutions?

While discussion on those and other issues was lively, the committee didn’t vote on or rank the 22 recommendations made by four subcommittees. Those groups studied the broad issues of access to higher education; the mission and organization of the state system; the pipeline from K-12 and higher ed, and financial sustainability.

Department of Higher Education staff had wanted committee members to do an initial ranking of the subcommittee recommendations. But the members decided they didn’t want to do that, instead instructing staff to prepare a first-draft report that will be circulated among the group and then discussed at its next meeting in late September.

Despite the lack of decisions, the discussion of key issues was lively and some of it highlighted the divides in the higher ed community.

There was much talk about budget challenges, with Co-Chair Jim Lyons saying, “We’re talking about the financial survivability of higher education in this state.”

One subcommittee has recommended $760 million a year in tax support as the minimum needed for higher ed. But several members noted that $1 to $1.5 billion is a more realistic number if the state wants to improve quality and accessibility.

Committee members also fretted about whether the public would support tax increases for higher ed. “Somebody’s got to be making a much stronger case for higher education as a public good. … I don’t think people in Colorado buy that right now,” said Don Elliman, a top gubernatorial advisor who’s an ex officio member.

Several campus leaders sat in on the meeting, including University of Colorado President Kay Norton, who said, “It’s great to have discussions about what would happen if there an additional revenue stream.” But, she added, college presidents have “to focus on a reality that is quite different.”

Colorado State University Chancellor Joe Blake
Colorado State University Chancellor Joe Blake

Joe Blake, Colorado State University chancellor, agreed that current financial pressures are the top priority for campus leaders.

Norton also was cool about the idea of a stronger state regulator role: “We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about governance and regulation except to wish it would go away.”

Tim Foster, president of Mesa State College, said, “I don’t think you need more regulation, but more collaboration” among institutions

Metro State President Steve Jordan repeated his familiar argument that the state needs to expands its middle-tier, four-year campuses to serve new kinds of students. “You have to rethink the missions of some of these institutions” to focus on undergraduate education, he said, mentioning the University of Colorado’s Denver and Colorado Springs campuses.

Absent from the session was CU President Bruce Benson, who’s recovering from hip replacement surgery. Benson previously has raised multiple concerns about some financing ideas floated by the steering committee, fearing they would harm CU, especially its graduate medical programs. (See this letter for details on CU’s concerns.)

The steering committee has five broad goals for its work:

  • Identify ways to improve the pipeline to higher education for both young and adult learners.
  • Reduce geographic, economic and demographic gaps in higher education access, retention and completion.
  • Strengthen links between K-12, higher education and the state’s economy.
  • Ensure future financial stability and affordability of the higher ed system.
  • Make recommendations for governance reform.

Considerable time during Tuesday’s meeting at the Auraria Higher Education Center was spent reviewing how the various subcommittee recommendations fit under those five goals.

The 14-member panel, created by Gov. Bill Ritter late last year and then formalized by a 2010 law, next meets on Sept. 22 to review the proposed draft report.

The final report is due to the governor and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education Nov. 4. In late September, the panel plans to hold four or five public meetings around the state, as well as to discuss the report draft with CCHE members and campus governing boards.

Related: Texas higher ed study group wrestles with similar issues

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