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Senate sides with community colleges

Updated 9:45 a.m. March 20 – A bill that would open the door to community colleges offering a limited number of bachelor’s degrees in technical fields won strong 29-5 approval Wednesday in the Senate.

There was no debate before the final vote, but there was lively discussion during preliminary consideration on Tuesday.

The only no votes were Sens. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder; Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood; Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, along with Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. Heath has led opposition to the bill. His district includes the University of Colorado Boulder, which opposes the proposal. Schwartz is a former CU regent.

The measure, Senate Bill 13-165, has sparked the first intramural education battle of the 2013 session, with lobbyists for several state universities working to kill or water down the bill, which is backed by the community college system and President Steve Jordan of Metro State University.

The battle boils down to a scrap over money in an era of low state support for higher education and tapering enrollments at some colleges as the economy improves.

An amendment to water the bill down by basically turning it into a study of degree and program needs was defeated on the Senate floor during preliminary consideration on Tuesday. Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, tried a similar amendment in the Senate Education Committee last week but also was rebuffed there. His district includes the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado, one of the institutions that formally oppose the bill.

“I just think this is the wrong way to go about it,” Heath said of the bill. “There is a huge need to step back” and do a study of how higher education can meet workforce needs.

“This guts the bill,” countered Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, saying the proposal as written has plenty of safeguards.

The bill wouldn’t give community colleges free rein to offer bachelor’s degrees in any field. The measure would allow them to offer up to seven degree programs in “technical, career and workforce development” programs. Creation of such programs would be subject to approval by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which would have to consider demand, accreditation, cost and possible overlap with existing four-year programs before approval.

Supporters of the bill repeatedly argued that those provisions provide sufficient guardrails around the expansion of community colleges’ roles.

Sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, said the bill “is not trying to take away from the four-year colleges and universities.”

A mix of Republican and Democratic senators came to the microphone to support the bill, and the voice vote on the bill was clearly in favor.

The measure moves to the House.

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