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Higher ed master plan nears completion

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education is nearing completion of a master plan for the state’s college and universities, a document intended to help spur increased college completion by Colorado students, improve the success of remedial programs and reduce ethnic success gaps.

Montage of Colorado colleges
From left, Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

The master plan also is a key step toward a performance-based funding system that could go into effect four years from now.

But the 19-page draft master plan doesn’t contain detailed guidelines for how Colorado is to achieve the document’s goals. The plan lays out only one specific requirement – increasing the number of degrees and certificates issued by state colleges by “at least” 1,000 a year.

Behind that is a larger goal – ensuring that 66 percent of Coloradans aged 25-34 hold a college degree or professional/vocational certificate by 2025. Some 43.9 percent of Coloradans in that age group had a degree or certificate in 2010. The figure was 46 percent for the 25-64 age group.

The plan’s four goals

  • Increase degree and certificate attainment
  • Improve success for students needing remediation and reduce the time it takes to earn a degree
  • Reduce attainment gaps between demographic groups
  • Improve state funding of higher education

*See expanded version below

Instead of placing more specific objectives in the master plan, they are to be contained in individual performance contracts that the Department of Higher Education will negotiate with individual systems and schools between now and the end of 2012.

The commission has been working on the master plan for more than a year. In an earlier draft, CCHE proposed a fairly detailed set of metrics that institutions would have to meet. For instance, one metric suggested increasing the number of students who take half- or full-time class loads. Research shows such students have higher completion rates.

But college leaders were uncomfortable with uniform measurements.

“Each institution believes it’s unique … and doesn’t want to be held to exactly the same standards as institution X,” observed Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also director of the department and a central figure in the master plan process.

For instance, Garcia said, “Some institutions think graduation rates are an important metric. … Others think the total number of credentials produced is more important.”

After weighing the institutions’ concerns, the commission decided during an Aug. 2-3 retreat to streamline the master plan to focus on the four broad goals and leave the details to the individual performance contracts.

A 2011 state law, Senate Bill 11-052, called for the master plan to be finished by Sept. 1. But the commission is delaying that deadline to give the leaders of state colleges and universities one last chance to comment, with a Sept. 26 deadline.

In the meantime, DHE is working with the attorney general’s office to design a performance contract form. The department will propose metrics for each institution, and “the negotiation process starts there,” Garcia said, continuing until we “get to a point where we agree.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, a prime sponsor of SB 11-052, said he’s comfortable with the direction the commission has taken.

The important part of the bill is the “what” – “to increase the number of people graduating in all our institutions of higher education,” the Boulder Democrat said. “We are very open to how that is accomplished.”

Changing the finance system

Performance contracts are nothing new in Colorado; a 2004 law that changed the way state funds are distributed to colleges required all institutions to have such contracts. State master plans also are nothing new, but past documents have been mostly aspirational.

However, previous performance contracts had no penalties or incentives. That’s supposed to change under SB 11-052.

Performance funding has become a hot topic nationwide as states’ support of higher education systems has dwindled and as interest has grown in making colleges more accountable.

More than 20 states have some type of performance funding, according to Complete College America, a national group that advocates for getting more Americans through college. “Results have been mixed because of inconsistent state commitments and political pressure from higher education constituents,” according to a brief prepared by the group.

In Nevada, a legislative study panel has recommended 100 percent of college base funding be allocated on credit hours completed, not students enrolled. (See this story from The Hechinger Report.)

The proposed Colorado system would be modest and wouldn’t kick in until state support of higher education improves.

The system wouldn’t launch until the 2016-17 school year at the earliest, and not until state support has reached $706 million, about $200 million more than it is now. Then, once state support reaches $760 million, 25 percent of any amount over that would be distributed to colleges based on their success on their performance contracts.

Asked if he thinks state support ever will get back to $706 million, Garcia said, “We’re certainly hopeful that we will. … We need to plan as if we’re going to get there.”

The commission will spend much of 2013 designing a system for how to distribute performance funding.

And in the meantime, CCHE will be responsible for working on the master plan’s fourth goal – increasing state funding.

In the recent recession years, higher education budget requests generally have been tailored to meet available state revenues, not to reflect costs driven by factors such as higher enrollment.

That’s going to change. The master plan promises the commission “will annually request operating revenues to meet projected enrollment and inflationary increases” and “will annually request appropriations for state financial aid to meet projected changes in enrollments of resident need-eligible residents and changes in costs of attendance for resident full-time students.”

So when the proposed 2013-14 state budget is unveiled on Nov. 1, legislators should expect to see a noticeably larger request than the one presented to them last year. Time will tell if the 2013 legislative session can or will fund that.

Draft master plan goals and key targets

→ Goal 1: Increase the attainment of high-quality postsecondary credentials across the academic disciplines and throughout Colorado by at least 1,000 new certificates and degrees each year to meet anticipated workforce demands by 2025.

Target: Reach 66 percent postsecondary credential attainment for Colorado citizens aged 25-34 by 2025

→ Goal 2: Improve student success through better outcomes in basic skills education, enhanced student support services and reduced average time to credential for all students.

Targets: Eliminate disparities in the completion rates of college-level English and mathematics courses between students originally assigned to remediation and those not assigned to remediation. Improve student persistence and credit hour accumulation. Reduce average credit hours to degree for undergraduate students.

→ Goal 3: Enhance access to, and through, postsecondary education to ensure that the system reflects the changing demographics of the state while reducing attainment gaps among students from underserved communities.

Target: Eliminate disparities in postsecondary access, progress and completion between resident underserved students and resident non-underserved students.

→ Goal 4: Develop resources, through increases in state funding, that will allow public institutions of higher education to meet projected enrollment demands while promoting affordability, accessibility and efficiency.

Targets: Increase the relative share of college costs shouldered by the state and reverse the trend of increasing the student’s burden, in order to bolster access to degrees and credentials for those who would pursue them. And maintain the state’s national leadership in efficiency and productivity.

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