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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

Free Us or Fund Us, Say Colleges

January 02, 2009

CU president Bruce Benson says the schools could save money if the legislature cut the apron strings.

By Allison Sherry - The Denver Post

Several prominent college leaders want lawmakers to step aside and allow them to raise the price of tuition as they see fit — especially with severe state budget cuts looming.

University of Colorado president Bruce Benson — with presidents at other schools lining up behind him — is urging the legislature to loosen regulations that public colleges and universities have to abide by in doing business every day.

Benson believes the schools could save money and time if they could make decisions for themselves and not have to run everything through the loop of the legislature and the state Department of Higher Education.

Most important for parents and students is the presidents' desire to raise in-state tuition rates without permission from the governor or lawmakers.

The push comes out of frustration among colleges that the $812 million higher education gets from the state is the most vulnerable when lawmakers need to find budget cuts.

"Give us the opportunity to control our destiny," Benson said, "especially if you're not going to give us money to run the place." University of Northern Colorado president Kay Norton agrees.

"I understand money that comes with strings, but strings without money I don't get," she said.

While the $812 million allocation sounds like a lot, most college presidents point out that it's only about 10 percent to 25 percent of their overall budgets. The legislature allowed colleges to increase in-state tuition rates by 9 percent for the 2008-09 school year.

Metropolitan State College of Denver president Steve Jordan agrees with Benson's push, which may end up as a proposed law this year.

"I don't think you can manage the college and be responsible for running it, if you can't decide tuition," Jordan said.

National studies show in-state tuition at Metro State — roughly $5,000 a year with fees — is half what peer schools in other states charge.

Jordan would like to increase tuition 3 percent to 5 percent each year over a couple of decades.

At least one lawmaker on the Joint Budget Committee agrees with the colleges.

Rep. Don Marostica says the state's public institutions should be privatized and set free from legislative rules. This also means that, eventually, the schools would get no state funding.

"I think they (college presidents) need to be able to control what they feel the tuition needs to be," said Marostica, a Republican from Loveland. "They've got to fill their campuses to make it work. They know how much they can push their tuition up."

At UNC, Norton said she would like the freedom to price college as private institutions do. This model is sort of like buying a plane ticket on the Internet: Everyone pays something different.

"The sticker price doesn't mean much except that you have enough revenue to move financial aid to those who need it the most," she said.

Norton said college presidents aren't "going to price themselves out of business. That would be suicidal."

That's not what worries David Longanecker, executive director for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Low-income students suffer when college presidents set tuition rates — particularly in a state that doesn't fund financial aid well, he said.

Colorado devotes about $261 per undergraduate student to financial aid. The national average is $415 per student, according to the National Association of State Scholarship and Grant Programs.

Even if schools stay true to their word, Longanecker said, it only works at places like CU-Boulder, where close to 40 percent of the students pay out-of-state tuition.

"There is no history of higher ed serving the most needy students," Longanecker said. "It's a classic area of where the market fails."

Allison Sherry: 303-954-1377 or asherry@denverpost.com