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Deadline nears for college tuition plans

The discussion about how much tuition Colorado college students will pay next fall kicks off in earnest on Friday, the deadline for state colleges and universities to submit tuition flexibility plans to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

A new state law allows colleges to raise resident undergraduate tuition as much as 9 percent a year for each of the next five school years. And, institutions that want larger increases can request permission to do so from CCHE. (Prior to the law the legislature set tuition increase caps every spring when it prepared the annual state budget bill. See background story on the new law.)

It’s such requests that are due Friday, setting off two months of analysis and discussion by Department of Higher Education and college officials, followed by CCHE decisions no later than its Dec. 2 meeting.

Colleges can’t request just the power to raise tuition more than 9 percent – they have to submit five-year plans detailing the proposed increases and how they propose to maintain accessibility and affordability for low- and middle-income students, control student debt, address the needs of under-served students and maintain academic quality. (See DHE template for the applications.)

Rico Munn, director of the department, briefed reporters on the process Wednesday, saying it’s “brand new for all of us” and predicting the department and the colleges will learn a lot as they do this for the first time.

“We don’t know if they [applications] will be two pages or 300 pages,” Munn said, joking that “We expect plans will come in at about 4:58 p.m.” on Friday.

Munn and other department officials cautioned that tuition proposals in the flexibility requests won’t necessarily turn out to be the rates approved by college boards next spring. “The numbers that are put out in these plans … may not be the actual tuition,” Munn said. “We expect a lot of changes to submissions as we go along.”

The director said he doesn’t know how many colleges will apply but noted, “nobody definitely has said no.” He added, “I promise you we’re geared up for this. We’re planning for the maximum number.” (The state system has 10 governing boards, the bodies that set tuition.)

College leaders have kept their plans close to their vests, and no requests had been filed as of Wednesday.

There’s been some tension between the colleges and the department over the schedule for the flexibility plans, with some campus leaders feeling the Oct. 1 deadline was too early, particularly since they won’t know until at least April exactly how much state tax money will be available for higher education. A lower level of state support creates pressure for larger tuition increases.

Because of that budget uncertainty, some colleges have talked about filing “contingent” plans containing multiple proposals based on different levels of state support. Munn said, “I hope the plans have a variety of assumptions.”

Colleges have to file plans by Friday in order to be eligible for tuition flexibility next school year, but the plans can be amended in the spring, based on updated budget prospects, Munn said.

He also said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if other institutions propose plans similar to a program announced by CSU last June, which increases financial aid for many lower- and middle-income students to offset rising tuition.

A committee of department staff members will review each request and pass it along to a subcommittee of the CCHE, which in turn will make recommendations to the full commission. The new flexibility law allows institutions to appeal CCHE decisions.

Colorado’s colleges and universities

The state system includes 25 colleges but only the 10 governing boards with tuition-setting authority.

Adams, Fort Lewis, Metropolitan, Mesa and Western state colleges have individual boards, as do the School of Mines and the University of Northern Colorado. The University of Colorado has three units, Colorado State University has two campuses plus an online unit and the Community College System includes 13 institutions.

Two other community colleges, Aims and Colorado Mountain, and three technical colleges also receive some state funding under different formulas and are not covered by the new tuition law.

Virtually all state campuses increased resident undergraduate tuition 9 percent for the current school year.

Colleges and universities are free to set whatever tuition they like for out-of-state undergraduates and for all graduate students.

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