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Higher ed panel makes some decisions

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 committee preparing a new strategic plan for public higher education has agreed on key concepts for its draft report, which has been turned over to a group of three panel members for further word smithing.

That new version will be considered at the Sept. 22 meeting of the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee, meaning no draft report will be available for at least the first public hearing on the plan, to be held Sept. 14 in Pueblo.

The committee asked Department of Higher Education staff to prepare a PowerPoint presentation to be used at the public hearings.

The 14-member panel, created by Gov. Bill Ritter late last year and then formalized by a 2010 law, is scheduled to submit its final report to Ritter and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education Nov. 4. Recommendations to the legislature will be up to CCHE, and major changes in the higher ed system would have to be approved by lawmakers, who may or may not have an appetite for changes in a 2011 session likely to be dominated by budget issues. Approval of any new taxes to support higher ed would require voter approval.

The committee has struggled at times over the last several months, and Friday’s meeting was scheduled because the panel didn’t get as far as it had hoped at an Aug. 25 session (see story).

Staff at DHE has written two rough drafts of a strategic plan. The committee sent the first one back for more work, partly because members didn’t like the proposed theme – “5 in 10.” That referred to setting a goal of increasing the number of degrees and certificates awarded by 5 percent a year over the next decade.

Resources

The new theme proposed by DHE is “The Degree Dividend – A Completion and Economic Development Agenda for Higher Education in Colorado.” (Several committee members wanted a greater emphasis on the economic benefits of an educated workforce, believing that will be an easier sell to voters when the time comes to ask for tax increases to support higher ed.)

Members seemed happier with the new theme, but Meg Porfido, who’d been critical of the first try, suggested some fine-tuning on the new one.

The latest draft suggests these five elements of the state system’s mission:

  • Meet the needs of the workforce and state’s economy
  • Provide access to an internationally competitive post-secondary educational experience to any qualified student through a tiered system of institutions
  • Maximize quality, efficiencies, collaborations and affordability
  • Offer seamless transitions to appropriate levels of learning for all students;
  • Develop responsible citizens for a successful civic enterprise

The draft highlights three major challenges to the future of higher ed: demand that outpaces capacity, a broken pipeline into and through college for students and a disorganized system.

To set up its recommendations, the draft paints three scenarios for the financial future of higher ed: Continued Erosion (state support of $500 million a year or less), “Doors Open” Funding ($760 million a year) and Restoration of Funding (about $1.1 billion a year). Current higher ed revenue is about $2 billion a year, but the majority of that comes from tuition, which has risen steadily in recent years, shifting the burden of support from taxpayers to students and families.

The draft report includes three high-level recommendations, the things which the committee agreed to in concept:

  • Colorado must lessen geographic, economic and demographic disparities in high quality educational access, retention and completion
  • Colorado must identify systematic approaches that enhance and improve the educational pipeline
  • Higher education governance should be structured in a way that leads to an intentional advancement of state priorities

Scheduled public hearings

  • Sept. 14 at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo
  • Sept. 29 at Mesa State College in Grand Junction
  • Oct. 5 in Sterling
  • Oct. 13 in the Greeley/Loveland area
  • Oct. 14 at Western State College in Gunnison
  • Week of Oct. 18 somewhere in the Denver metro area

(In plain language, those mean: The state needs to reduce regional, income and ethnic gaps in college attendance and graduation, the state needs to help more students get into college and easily move among colleges and CCHE needs to review how the state system is organized.)

The document suggests detailed lists of strategies for implementing each of the three recommendations and also lays out which strategies could be implemented and which would be impossible under each of the three funding scenarios.

On the question of the system’s structure, the draft suggests that CCHE examine the current and possible future research missions of the CU campuses in Denver and Colorado Springs and of the University of Northern Colorado, the future of the Auraria Higher Education Center and greater cooperation among and even merger of some institutions.

Such suggestions may or may not make it to the final draft. While changes in system structure have been discussed at length by the steering committee and one of the four panels that advised the group, it looks like the politically delicate task of suggesting changes will be left to CCHE. Steering committee members generally favor a stronger role for CCHE, a direction not favored by many individual institutions.

After discussing the next draft at its Sept. 22 meeting, the panel will meet again Oct. 27 to approve a final version. In addition to the main report, the committee is expected to produce a summary and a more detailed document for CCHE.

There was an undercurrent of pessimism at Friday’s meeting as members discussed the financial prospects for higher ed. Most members who spoke felt that the system will be stuck in the “Continued Erosion” mode for the foreseeable future, perhaps leading to a situation in which what little state funding is available should be given directly to students as financial aid.

The flip side of that, it was agreed, is that colleges would be freed to raise tuition as much as they could to cover costs.

That would be “a de facto privatized system,” said Co-chair Jim Lyons. “It’s the end of the line.” He noted later that would be little need for a CCHE coordinating role in such a situation.

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