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Bills come due for new tuition policy

A key legislative decision made a year ago will start hitting family checkbooks later this summer, when the first bills for the 2011-12 school year arrive from state colleges and universities.

Percentage increases range from about 5.5 percent to 20 percent for undergraduates who are Colorado residents.

But those percentages don’t tell the full story. College budgets and costs are frustratingly complicated, and increases in tuition and fees are driven by a variety of factors that vary campus to campus.

Some institutions are increasing tuition but keeping a tighter lid on fee hikes, which moderates the increase in overall cost of attendance. Other colleges are posting double-digit tuition increases partly because they’re requiring students to take more credits per semester to qualify as full time. And, some schools are charging the same amount for expanded class loads as they charge for standard full-time schedules. That makes it possible for students to graduate sooner and save money – if they’re willing to take heavier course loads.

So the bite for individual students varies by which colleges they attend, how much financial aid they qualify for, how many classes they take and even by their majors and the specific classes they take.

Above all that complexity, there is a single factor driving tuition and fee increases – the decline of state tax support for colleges and universities.

The state higher education system received $644.5 million in state funding and federal stimulus money in the 2010-11 budget year, which ends June 30. State funding for 2011-12 (the stimulus program is over) is about $519 million, a cut of $125.4 million, or about 19 percent.

More info on college costs

(Reports are the most recent available from the Department of Higher Education.)

The cuts vary by institution, ranging from a high of about 24 percent at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Northern Colorado to a low of 14.5 percent for the Community College System. Funding is down $187 million, about 26.5 percent, from 208-09, the high point of higher ed support in the last decade.

State allocations to individual schools are made by a complicated formula adopted late last year by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. The formula – a grudging compromise among institutions – includes such factors as past funding, special programs such as graduate education and enrollment.

Even as funding has been cut enrollment has grown, so state support per full-time student has slid 36.4 percent since 2008-09.

As the budget clouds gathered in 2010, the legislature passed a law allowing college boards of trustees to raise tuition up to 9 percent a year for each of the following five years. (Traditionally, the legislature had set tuition increase ceilings in the annual state budget bill.)

College FAPs

College financial accountability plans provide tuition strategies for five years, based on varying levels of state support. Plans also detail the financial aid strategies colleges promise to use to blunt the impact of increases on some students. (Mines did not request tuition flexibility.)

The plans were filed and approved before 2011-12 state funding was set, so some details of next year’s actual tuition plans differ from what was proposed.

A key provision of the law also allows colleges that want increases larger than 9 percent to ask permission from the CCHE. Every college and system except Mines sought and was granted tuition rate flexibility late last year, and those plans, for the most part, have been translated into the bills parents and students will start paying this summer. (Background story on those “financial accountability plans.”)

The law doesn’t give trustees free rein to raise tuition (fee hikes aren’t covered). Colleges also had to provide detailed plans for protecting low- and middle-income students from the full blow of tuition increases.

Total tuition revenue next year is estimated at $1.53 billion, $951 million from Colorado students and $585 million from non-residents.

Increases by institution

Here are snapshots of tuition and fee increases for 2011-12 at each state institution:

Adams State College – The trustees voted May 13 to raise resident undergraduate tuition and fees to $5,626 a year, an increase of 13.2 percent. The full time rate previously covered 12 to 15 credit hours a semester. Next year, students can take up to 20 hours for the same price as 12. More information

Colorado School of Mines – Resident undergrad tuition next year will be $12,585, a 9 percent increase. Fees will be $1,870. One mandatory fee has been eliminated and other fees have been limited to a 1.6 percent inflationary increase. The rates were approved on May 23. More information

Colorado State University System – The Board of Governors approved 2011-12 rates Monday. Fort Collins campus administration proposed a 20 percent increase, driven partly by a change in the definition of full time to 12 from 10 credit hours per semester. The same base tuition will apply up to 20 hours. More information. At the Pueblo campus administrators proposed a 12.9 percent increase.

Community College System – Tuition will increase 10 percent, to $3,175.50 a year for a student who takes 15 credit hours a semester. The state board, voting on April 13, set a 1.9 percent cap of fee increases, but fees vary by campus. More information (the document refers to 9 percent, but that was changed by the board)

Fort Lewis College – The college trustees approved 2011-12 rates on April 1. The increase is 9 percent for resident undergrads, making the annual total $4,048 for students taking 11 to 18 credit hours. Mandatory fees weren’t increased. More information

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.

Mesa State College – College trustees met Monday and approved next next year’s rates. The administration is proposing a 5.47 percent increase in tuition and reductions in many fees, yielding a combined 4.8 percent increase in tuition and fees. Total tuition and fees would be $5,238.48 for a student taking 12 credit hours. (Mesa doesn’t offer a flat rate for a range of credit hours but does give a rebate to some returning students who take 15 hours.) More information

Metropolitan State College – The Metro trustees on June 1 approved 2011-12 tuition and fees that are 18.1 percent higher than this year’s charges. Details in this article

University of Colorado System – For full-time resident undergraduate students, the increase will be about 9 percent at Boulder, 7 percent at Colorado Springs and 9 percent at Denver. Compared to the current 2010-11 school year, those combined costs would increase for resident undergrads 5.8 percent at Boulder, 5.3 percent at Colorado Springs and 5.5 percent at Denver (lower division). The regents approved the tuition rates by a one-vote majority on April 27. Details in this article

University of Northern Colorado – Rates approved by the trustees on June 10 make resident undergrad tuition $5,300 for students taking 13 to 16 credit hours, an increase of 13.2 percent. More information

Western State College – Rates approved by the trustees on March 25 increase resident undergrad tuition to $3,921.60, a jump of 14.6 percent. The same rate applies for 12 to 18 credits. Overall fee increases are about 2 percent, and some items that were charged as fees in the past have been rolled into tuition rates. More information

Tuition costs for resident undergraduate students are discounted by College Opportunity Fund stipends, which aren’t true stipends since they’re paid to the colleges, not to students, and because the amount fluctuates year-to-year depending on much money the legislature can afford to spend on higher education. Tuition costs used in this article and on college websites are the amounts after the stipend has been deducted.

Tuition for everybody else

There are no state controls over the tuition paid by undergrads from other states and all graduate students. Many colleges are increasing non-resident tuition 5 percent next year. Out-of-staters aren’t necessarily getting a break; they typically pay twice as much or more than Colorado students do. Market forces keep a bit of a lid on non-resident increases, because colleges don’t want to get ahead of non-resident rates in other states.