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Improvement possible without cost?

The uncomfortable question of whether Colorado can effectively improve the performance of its higher education system without more funding provided a sobering note Friday during a rare “summit” of higher ed leaders.

A majority of the participants indicated they believe the answer is no.

Colorado in recent years has been in the difficult spot of pushing reforms of both K-12 and higher education even as funding for both has been cut.

Despite that conflict, state education leaders generally have taken the public position that reform must proceed even if it’s unclear how to pay for it. That’s the view Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia advocated Friday during a meeting of college presidents and trustees, Colorado Commission on Higher Education members and Department of Higher Education executives.

The session was convened by DHE and the CCHE to gather comment from institutional leaders about the proposed goals of a new master plan for the state higher ed system.

Three of the proposed goals relate to system improvements; the fourth involves funding.

Garcia, who does double duty as director of DHE, opened the session by saying lack of funding doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t pursue higher ed improvements. It’s a point he’s made repeatedly at other events, and an argument he also makes about K-12 reforms. Garcia is the Hickenlooper administration’s point person on education issues.

The four master plan goals proposed by CCHE are:

  • Increasing the number of degrees and certificates earned by Colorado students in order to meet workforce demands
  • Closing gaps in degree and certificate attainment by minority, rural and poor students
  • Reducing the need for remedial education
  • Increasing public funding

Summit participants were walked through the four goals by facilitator Chris Adams of Engaged Public. He asked questions about each goal, and audience members responded by tapping their answers into small wireless keypads. The audience response system tallied the answers, and Adams projected them onto a large screen.

A series of questions about the first three proposed goals elicited strong agreement or agreement with the goals from large majorities of the 50-some people who participated.

When Adams asked members of the group if they supported the funding goal, 69 percent responded yes, 14 percent no and 17 percent weren’t sure. (The current language of the funding goal proposes that state support be increased so that taxpayers cover half the cost of higher education and students pay half. It doesn’t proposed increased overall funding.)

But the answers were much different when Adams asked if participants agreed that progress could be made on the first three goals without changes in funding.

Nine percent strongly agreed, 20 percent agreed, 14 percent were neutral, 37 percent disagreed and 20 percent strongly disagreed.

That result prompted Garcia to repeat his views. “Understanding that the fiscal environment isn’t likely to change in the short run … it seems to me that we can’t allow the lack of funding to serve as an excuse to do nothing,” he said. “That frankly is a dangerous attitude for the future of this state.”

He did acknowledge, “We’re saying these are important goals [but] our ability to achieve them will be impacted by the amount of money we have.”

Fort Lewis College President Dene Thomas highlighted the dilemma, saying the first three goals “are very important” to every college president. “They want success for our students. But she acknowledged she voted “neutral” on Adams’ question.

Déjà vu all over again

A significant chunk of the afternoon session at the Auraria Higher Education Center was devoted to a presentation by Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Boulder-based research organization.

Jones’ statistics on declining state support for Colorado colleges, degree gaps for minorities, a growing minority population, future workforce needs and other issues was sobering – and very familiar to people who’ve been around Colorado higher education for awhile.

The presentation and the stats were similar to ones Jones made to another higher ed summit in 2007, to the CCHE in 2009 and in 2010 to the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee, a group that laid important groundwork for the master plan. (See this Education News Colorado story about what Jones told the commission two years ago. The message was very similar to what he said Friday.)

What’s next

The master plan being developed by CCHE is required by Senate Bill 11-052, passed by the legislature earlier this year. The plan is supposed to be finished by Sept. 1, 2012, and it will form the basis for performance contracts that the state has to negotiate with each college and university. The contracts are to be completed by next Dec. 1.

Those contracts, which will contain goals tailored to individual institutions, in turn will be the basis for performance funding that institutions can earn for meeting certain goals.

Whether performance funding will ever materialize is another one of those uncomfortable financial questions. The law requires state funding to rise back to $760 million a year before performance funding – which would be only a small part of total funding – kicks in. Current state higher ed funding is about $519 million and could drop below $500 million next year. Performance funding also wouldn’t kick in any earlier than 2016-17.

CCHE Chair Hereford Percy closed Friday’s session by saying the commission would take the group’s suggestions into account when it prepares revised goals in January. The commission is to adopt the goals in May, and the law gives institutions 60 days to review and comment on the commission’s final version.

Percy also said CCHE would seriously consider group suggestions about changing the wording of the finance goal and perhaps adding goals related to college access, the importance of research and economic development and to program quality.

“I think that we made some significant progress today,” Percy said. The group seemed to agree. On a final vote 52 percent strongly agreed with the direction CCHE is taking, and 36 agreed.

Friday’s summit was the first time in four years that CCHE members, presidents and trustee representatives have met, according to matt Gianneschi, deputy director of DHE.

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