Metro State University leaders defended their special tuition rate for undocumented students during a legislative hearing Tuesday after a Republican lawmaker questioned its legality.
The tuition policy was the focus of sharp criticism by Republican lawmakers after it was enacted last summer. But talk about the issue has dropped off in recent months, and passage of a undocumented tuition bill next year became almost certain when Democrats retook control of the state legislature in the November elections.
The issue cropped up during an otherwise routine hearing at which college leaders from around the state met with the Joint Budget Committee to discuss financial issues.
Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and a JBC member, brought up the subject during Metro’s presentation.
“The actions you took broke federal law and broke state law” she said, adding that Metro had violated correct processes in taking its action.
“I actually respectfully disagree with ‘violating process,’” responded Metro President Steve Jordan, adding, “I disagree with Rep. Gerou’s interpretation of federal law.”
Robert Cohen, chair of the Metro trustees, weighed in as well. “I believe we were within our statutory authority. … We weighed this decision very carefully.”
Gerou replied, “Thank you gentlemen. I don’t agree with you, but that doesn’t really matter.” Referring to the issue’s prospects in the 2013 legislative session, she said, “I think we’re going to do something about that. … We need to make sure these students are successful. I don’t want to set them up for failure.”
JBC member Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, said “For far too long undocumented students have been treated like they’re a political football.” Speaking to Jordan and Cohen, said, “You should be applauded, and thank you for all you’ve done.”
The issue of undocumented students came up in a more low-key way earlier in the hearing.
Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster, unprompted by any legislator questions, said such students “should be paying in-state tuition. … They are smart, motivated students.”
A little later Duran asked University of Colorado President Bruce Benson for his thoughts on the issue. He said formally supporting such legislation is up to the Board of Regents, and “the regents are kind of split on these things.” Benson added that charging undocumented students high tuition “just doesn’t make any sense” but added “I’m not going to tell you exactly how I feel.”
At the beginning of the hearing, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also heads the Department of Higher Education, noted that future growth at state colleges and universities will primarily be among Hispanic and low-income students, and “We have not served these groups very well in the past.”
The 2012 legislature, split between Democratic control of the Senate and a Republican majority in the House, defeated a bill that would have created a special tuition rate for undocumented students, less than non-resident tuition but higher than in-state rates.
With Democrats in control of both houses for 2013, a tuition bill will be introduced and is expected to pass, although details of the legislation haven’t been determined yet.
Funding worries a bit muted at hearing
The daylong hearing is an annual event, and in recent years cuts in higher education funding have dominated the discussions.
There was less of that this year, given that improved state revenues have allowed the Hickenlooper administration to propose a 5.8 percent increase in state support of colleges, or about $30 million.
But some familiar concerns were raised.
Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said, “Unless something changes the higher education funding pie will be squeezed to zero sometime in the next decade.”
Benson, who loves to talk about how financially efficient and lean CU is, warned, “You can be too efficient, and I think we’re getting close to that point. You get too efficient and you can make mistakes.”
Kay Norton, president of the University of Northern Colorado, told the committee, “We’re not looking forward to the good old days and restoration of funding, so we work very hard on the transformation of our institution into the 21st century model. … Everything we control is going great, and we try not to dwell on the rest of it.”
Foster, a longtime critic of what he feels is excessive state regulation of higher education, asked, “Can we quit wasting money on program plans and master plans?” given that the state isn’t willing or able to adequately fund colleges and universities.