The Colorado Legislature did something last week it has not had the opportunity to do in some time: significantly increase funding to higher education. The Long Bill, which appropriates state funding, calls for a $100 million increase ($60 million in operating, $40 million in financial aid) for the state's colleges and universities. CU's share of the operating funds is about $17 million. Financial aid allocation is expected to happen in June.
The boost was originally proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia and supported through the legislative process so far by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. We appreciate their support and this recognition of the importance of higher education to Colorado's economy, health and culture.
As a direct result of the funding increase, the CU Board of Regents was able to approve the lowest tuition increase in many years (averaging about 3.4 percent across our campuses for resident students). While we understand that any increase is not welcome news to students and families, we also know they demand a high-quality education, and that a CU degree is a high-return investment.
More good news from the Legislature came in the form of investments in capital construction and controlled maintenance. CU will receive funding for the Visual and Performing Arts building on our Colorado Springs campus, the Auraria Library, and (should revenues exceed projections in the current fiscal year, which we will know in September) the renovation of Ketchum Hall on the Boulder Campus. We are also receiving approximately $6.6 million for much-needed controlled maintenance.
All this news is welcome, but storm clouds remain on the horizon for the long term. The state's economy is improving and that means we will likely see another increase in state funding next year and possibly the following year (although likely not of the magnitude of this year's increase). After that, Gordian knots in the state constitution coupled with state revenues projected to lag behind budget costs over the long run spell trouble for higher education. The big budget drivers will always be K-12 and Medicaid and when the state's budget gets too tight, higher education will again face cuts. It's not that legislators don't value what we do. They understand and appreciate higher education's contributions. But we are one of the few discretionary parts of the budget and when push comes to shove, we get shoved.
When I started this job six years ago, CU received $229 million in state funding. Adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, that should have been $350 million. This year, we received about $150 million in state funding, which will increase to $167 million next year. Still, Colorado ranks 48th nationally in state funding per student.
But cuts are in our future. It is incumbent upon us to prepare for it by continuing our practices of recent years: streamlining our operations, instituting better business practices, leveraging technology in educational delivery, bolstering revenue streams we can affect and continually looking for efficiencies.
Yet all our efforts will not change the state funding equation. Several studies (and our internal analysis) show Colorado will have to severely cut funding for higher education within the decade. This is staggering to consider. The burden of paying for higher education will continue its shift from the state to students and families. The Colorado Constitution says that CU is a public institution and that won't change. I worry, however, that within the decade we may well become a public institution that receives little to no public funding. There used to be a general sense among the public that higher education was both a private gain and a public good. The prevailing attitude now is that it is only a private gain, which is short-sighted.
We will continue to do all we can to stay ahead of the curve when funding declines. But today, we say thank you to the governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature for making higher education a top priority. Their support is keeping tuition in check and that's something we all like to see.
Yet over the coming months and years, Colorado needs to have a serious discussion about the significant public policy question of higher education funding before it's too late. Nothing less than our state's quality of life and economic viability are at stake.
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