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Tuition-setting season ramps up

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education last week gave Adams State College approval to raise resident undergraduate tuition 15 percent next school year. Western State College got the OK for an 18 percent hike.

The action came at the end of a week in which the tuition burden on Colorado families was a hot topic in legislative committees. Tuition rates for most state colleges and universities won’t be set until later, but the Adams and Western decisions were a sharp reminder that tuition costs will continue to rise for Colorado students next year.

The trustees of Fort Lewis College actually kicked off tuition season last month, voting to raise tuition 9 percent for resident undergraduate students next year.

A fair amount of tuition concern at the Capitol has been directed at the University of Colorado Boulder, where a proposed double-digit increase has been under fire because of raises for top campus administrators.

The CCHE doesn’t set tuition rates. A 2010 law gave colleges and universities the power to raise resident tuition up to 9 percent a year for five years. Institutions that wanted larger increases had to seek CCHE approval, making a financial case for the increase and demonstrating how they would reduce the burden for low- and middle-income students, such as by increasing financial aid.

In late 2010, the commission approved tuition flexibility plans for all institutions, except for the Colorado School of Mines, which didn’t apply. (See this Education News Colorado story for background. Get links to the financial accountability plans at the bottom of this page.)

The Adams and Western applications were the first requested amendments to the original flexibility plans. Both colleges felt the continued decline in direct state support forced them to seek larger tuition increases than they originally had planned for 2012-13.

Bill Mansheim, Adams vice president for finance, told the commission, “We can’t keep up with the rate of cuts” in state support without tuition increases.

He wasn’t optimistic about the future, saying, “We’re trying to plan, on a 10-year window, on complete elimination of state support.” (Read a summary of the Adams tuition plan.)

Western Vice President Brad Baca told a similar story, saying, “One of the primary drivers of this request is the decline in state funding.” He said the tuition increase, along with an increase for out-of-state students, will raise about $1.2 million in revenue. The college will use $700,000 to increase financial aid, with the rest of the income matching an expected cut of about $500,000 in state support next year.

The college is “essentially moving to a higher-cost, higher-financial aid model,” Baca said. (Read a summary of Western’s plan.)

Lt. Gov Joe Garcia listens to CCHE member Regina Rodriguez discuss tuition at a March 2, 2011, meeting.

Lt. Gov Joe Garcia listens to CCHE member Regina Rodriguez discuss tuition at a March 2, 2011, meeting.

Flexibility applications are reviewed by a commission subcommittee, which makes recommendations to the full body. Commissioner Regina Rodriguez of Denver, who headed the subcommittee, said the panel supported both applications.She complimented the thoroughness and care in the applications, said there’s no choice but higher tuition and that “I think it is important that we as a commission support these institutions.”

Department of Higher Education staff don’t expect additional applications for changes in flexibility plans – except possibly for CU.

University administrators have floated the idea of a total 15.7 percent resident undergraduate increase for Boulder, a combination of an increased rate per credit hour and an increase in the full-time load.

Some regents are reluctant to do that, and criticism of CU’s plan has been amplified by news reports on administrator raises, use of part-time executives in top positions and an email on the issue written by President Bruce Benson. (See the Boulder Daily Camera’s archive for details on the CU controversy.)

CU got verbally beaten up by witnesses at a House Education Committee meeting on Feb. 27. The panel was considering House Bill 12-1252, which would require colleges to post detailed financial information online, including faculty salaries (see story).

If CU goes for the 15.7 percent increase – and that may be up in the air – it will need CCHE approval, according to DHE staff. The regents have a special meeting scheduled on March 14.

Tuition also was on the minds of JBC members last week as they debated how to allocate state funding to colleges in 2012-13. After delaying action twice, the committee voted on Monday to recommend the college allocation plan requested by institutions and the CCHE. Under that plan, state higher education support would drop from about $519 million this year to about $489 million in 2012-13. (Get details, including individual college allocations, in this JBC staff briefing paper.)

Across the higher ed system, state support now amounts to less than a quarter of total revenue.

Tuition questions

Why does tuition keep rising? – The steady decline in state tax support over the past few years has forced colleges to both cut costs and raise tuition in order to balance their budgets and maintain operations.

Who’s affected by increases? – Tuition hikes affect students in a myriad of individual ways, primarily depending on how much financial aid a student is eligible to receive. At some colleges and systems, tuition increases can vary by program and by campus. And students’ tuition bills are affected by how many classes they take.

Why do increases vary by college? – Colorado colleges and universities have extensive autonomy and unique financial profiles that drive different financial plans. Tuition increases are affected not only by hikes in the base rate per credit hour but also by changes in the definition of a full-time class load. (In recent years some colleges hit students with both a base-rate hike and an increase in how many classes a student had to take for full-time status.) In some cases colleges have reclassified which charges count as tuition and which are considered fees.

Where can I get more information? – There’s a wealth of detail in the DHE’s annual report on tuition and fees for 2010-11, the most recent year available. The department also publishes an extensive annual report on student financial aid and debt.

Tuition prospects

The following list includes the maximum percentage each college is allowed to increase 2012-13 resident undergraduate tuition under its CCHE-approved plan and when trustees are expected to act.

Read college financial accountability plans here. (Links are at bottom of page.)

  • Colorado Community College System – 10.8-12.7 percent; April or May.
  • Colorado State University System – 9 percent; June.
  • University of Colorado System – 9 percent; March 14 special meeting.
  • Metropolitan State College – 13 percent; next scheduled trustee meeting is April 4 but tuition probably won’t be decided until June.
  • University of Northern Colorado – 15 percent; June. (The trustees will discuss the 2012-13 budget at a meeting this Friday.)
  • Colorado School of Mines – 9 percent; May. (Mines never sought tuition-setting flexibility from CCHE so is limited to the 9 percent ceiling in state law.)
  • Adams – 15 percent approved.
  • Fort Lewis – 9 percent approved.
  • Colorado Mesa – 9.49 percent; May or June.
  • Western – 18 percent approved.