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Colorado higher ed leaders to lawmakers: Funding isn’t keeping up with inflation

A room with floor-to-ceiling windows and students scattered at tables and chairs

Colorado higher education institution leaders say they need more money in 2023-24 than what’s proposed in Gov. Jared Polis’ budget.

Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

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Colorado’s college and university leaders said their schools need more money than proposed by the governor, and pleaded with the legislature Thursday to boost spending on higher education.

In a joint letter, the 15 higher education leaders said they need at least $144 million more to keep up with inflation, pay competitive wages, and provide crucial support to students.

It’s the second year in a row that college and university presidents have banded together to demand more funding. It represents a new, more vocal approach in a state where higher education often takes a back seat to K-12 advocacy — and one that was successful last year. 

The Monday letter asks for double what Gov. Jared Polis requested for their operations in the 2023-24 year. They also want to keep the ability to raise tuition by up to 4%. College and university leaders said the additional funding would help cover inflation and support students of color and those who are low-income. 

Polis has proposed increasing college and university budgets by $70 million for operations and $16 million for student financial aid. College leaders say that amount is not enough to keep up with inflation.

Colorado ranks 49th, down from 45th, in spending per student, according to a State Higher Education Executive Officers Association report from last year. The letter to the state says that “Colorado is still approximately $900 million below the average funding of our national peers.”

The association report looks at the 2021 budget year, when the state slashed higher education funding and backfilled those cuts with federal funding. The state increased funding this budget year, but Colorado continues to trail the majority of states.

“Greater state investment in higher education has never been more important as we seek to meet critical state workforce shortages, while also keeping tuition in check and addressing inflationary pressures on our operations,” the letter from the state’s university and college leaders says. 

During the Thursday Joint Budget Hearing on higher education budgets, state lawmakers asked how tuition increases would impact students. Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall said that when schools increase tuition, they also increase financial support for students who need it the most. Colorado public university students already carry one of the highest tuition burdens in the nation and also face rising inflation.

Marshall said schools risk losing administrative and instructional staff if the state doesn’t provide more aid. 

“We’ve dealt with double-digit increases in utilities, diesel gas, and all the various challenges you’re dealing with both in your personal budgets and here in the state budget,” Marshall said to lawmakers.

While the governor crafts a budget that reflects his priorities, the six lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee write the budget presented to lawmakers for approval each spring.

In asking for more money, colleges and university leaders outlined their role in training workers for in-demand jobs. 

More and more, state leaders have expressed worry that the state isn’t keeping up. Colorado has two job openings for every qualified worker, according to state economic data. The state’s colleges and universities train those workers to meet the demand, the letter says. 

In addition to operational funding for colleges, Polis has proposed $70 million to provide free training, mostly at community colleges, and financial aid for schooling and apprenticeships to connect students to high-demand fields such as health care, teaching, law enforcement, fire fighting, construction, and advanced manufacturing. The governor wants the money to help educate more than 35,000 students.

Colorado Mountain College President Carrie Besnette Hauser told the Joint Budget Committee the state should allow students to use money from the governor’s training program for housing, especially in expensive mountain areas.

Joe Garcia, Colorado Community College System chancellor, said he’s grateful the governor is recommending more money to support job training programs, but more is needed. 

Fewer older adults and students of color have enrolled at two-year colleges since the start of the pandemic. They’re groups in need of training. 

“We have gained a lot of ground in this state over the last decade. We’re losing ground now,” Garcia said. “We think that by working together, and when supported by the state, we can again begin to reach those students — and those students will ultimately help our state’s economy.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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