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CCHE: Stop the higher ed bleeding

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education drew a symbolic line in the sand Wednesday, saying the state’s higher education system can stand no further cuts in state support and approving an allocation plan that assumes $555 million in state tax support for 2011-12.

Commissioners approved the plan, which proposes specific levels of funding for each college and university, despite a state senator’s warning that it may not be realistic and despite the fact that colleges with half the state’s enrollment don’t support the plan. (Details of the plan.)

The commission has been wrestling since May with a higher ed funding proposal for 2011-12, laying out principles and procedures and reviewing various scenarios proposed by the Department of Higher Education.

At its Aug. 5 meeting the commission, with several members absent, deadlocked on a plan proposed by DHE staff, sending the department and campus chief financial officers back to the drawing board in preparation for Wednesday’s meeting (read story).

The plan approved by the commission on a 10-1 vote (all members voting) actually was developed by a coalition of institutions, including the University of Colorado and Colorado State University systems, the University of Northern Colorado and Adams, Western and Fort Lewis state colleges.

The plan assumes state funding of $555 million in 2011-12 and uses a combination of factors involving proportional cuts and tuition-raising ability to allocate money among the state’s campuses. Overall, the plan would cut state support 13.4 percent from the $644.4 million in state money and federal stimulus funds being used in the current, 2010-11 budget year.

Although Gov. Bill Ritter’s budget advisors for now are predicting $555 million will be available in 2011-12, there’s fear in many quarters that there won’t be enough state revenue to support that level.

Department staff recommended an alternative allocation plan based on $500 million in state funding, which would mean a 21.4 percent cut from the current year. (Total revenue for higher ed this year is about $2 billion – but the majority of that is provided by student tuition, which is likely to go up further next budget year to cover whatever cuts end up being made.)

Despite the fact that cuts will be made in any case, $555 million versus $500 million became the focus of a symbolic debate Wednesday.

Commissioner Greg Stevinson, who made the motion to approve the allocation plan, said it “sends a message to the legislature… that we just can’t take any more cuts. … We’re cut to the bone.”

Other commissioners agreed.

Larry Beckner said, “There is a limit beyond which we cannot go. … There comes a point where we simply can’t survive. … We need to demand the $555 million minimum.”

One member wasn’t persuaded. “I’m not sure we’re going to hit that mark and that we’re going to have to start all over again,” said Happy Haynes.

State Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who’s an advisory member of CCHE, cautioned the commission, saying, ” I am telling you I don’t think the governor is going to able to give you the $555 million. … I’m talking about the reality of the conversations I hear at the Capitol. … I think we may be forced to kill some of our colleges. … If you don’t advise us who to kill we will tell you who to kill.”

Stevinson pushed back a bit at Hudak, saying higher ed has taken deeper cuts than K-12 and highways, two programs that Hudak mentioned. “Right now they don’t have a clue about what higher education has experienced.”

The plan approved by the commission proposes cuts in state aid that range from 17.7 percent for the CU system to 9.5 percent for community colleges. But, the community colleges and Metro and Mesa state colleges didn’t sign on to the proposal because they feel it doesn’t allocate enough extra funding to campuses that have experienced significant enrollment growth. The plan proposes to take $10 million of the $555 million and allocate it to six systems and campuses to partially compensate for growth.

The commission’s vote is by no means the final word on the issue. New state revenue forecasts will be issued at the end of this month, providing updated information on the state budget situation for 2011-12.

Under terms of a new state law, colleges now are free to raise tuition up to 9 percent in each of the next five school years. They can ask commission permission for even larger percentage increases. Colleges that want to make such requests for 2011-12 have to file them by early next month.

A key reason why the commission adopted the allocation plan was to give colleges a baseline for preparing those tuition flexibility requests.

Another set of state revenue forecasts will be issued in late December, and the 2011 legislature, of course, will have the final word on higher ed spending in 2011-12.

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