Colorado’s investment in higher education ranks abysmally low. It is dead last among the states for funding research universities – the University of Colorado and Colorado State University – and 48th for its per-student funding at all public colleges and universities. These are not numbers to brag about, though the financial constraints the state budget has faced in recent years make them somewhat understandable. Nevertheless, the Colorado Legislature rightly is attempting to correct what is a growing imbalance between the state’s contribution to college education and that which students must bear.
The Senate Education Committee Thursday passed Senate Bill 1, which would cap tuition increases for public colleges and universities at 6 percent a year, beginning with the 2014-15 school year. As well, it would transfer $100 million from the general fund to higher education – $40 million of which would go toward financial aid, primarily need-based, though there is $5 million set aside for merit-based scholarships and work study grants, respectively.
Those two components of the measure will do something – albeit not much – to reverse the trend that has shifted college costs disproportionately to students. Since 2000, according to the Bell Policy Center, the percentage of college costs paid by the state and that by students has flip-flopped: In 2000, state funding covered 68 percent of the costs and students paid 32 percent; now, students pay 69 percent of college costs while the state covers 31 percent. That has the twofold effect of making college less attainable for more would-be students as well as driving students to cheaper alternatives elsewhere. The state should invest in opportunity for its young people – and, by extension, its economy.
As Frank Waterous, a senior policy analyst for Bell, said in his testimony supporting SB 1, “One of the essential functions and obligations of government is to support the development of an educated citizenry and workforce.” In doing so, the state invests in its own future by offering attainable, excellent higher education to its future workers, entrepreneurs and innovators. With tuition increases now capped at 9 percent a year, the universe of students for which such a vision is a reality narrows precipitously each year. A 6 percent cap would broaden it.
Waterous’ testimony succinctly captures the important values that comprise and inform SB 1: “Combined with this cap, the bill’s significant $100 million reinvestment in both the operation of our public postsecondary system and in student financial aid is crucial for revitalizing the state’s role in supporting affordable postsecondary education as a gateway to opportunity for all Coloradans.”
There is no vocal opposition to the measure, nor should there be. The cost of higher education nationwide has outpaced students’ ability to pay for it, regardless of public support for colleges and universities. With Colorado at or near the bottom of the list in terms of that support, there is much room for – and need for improvement. As the state’s economy recovers from the recession that pinched bottom lines in all departments, backfilling higher education must be a top priority for lawmakers. Senate Bill 1 is an excellent start.