Big shots face off

Higher ed funding bill sparks high-level differences

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia makes points on higher education bill as sponsor Mark, Ferrandino, speaker of the House at right, listens.

It’s rare to see vigorous public debate between the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor, especially when they’re from the same party. But a proposed higher education funding bill brought out just that at a House Education Committee hearing Monday.

At issue is House Bill 14-1319, a proposal by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. In broad terms, it would shift funding to “access” institutions, such as the community colleges and Metropolitan State University, and target some funding to state colleges and universities based on such performance indicators as graduation rates.

In addition to highlighting differences between Ferrandino and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also executive director of the Department of Higher Education, the hearing also revealed divisions between research universities and smaller rural colleges on one side and Metro and the community colleges on the other.

Although Ferrandino has been working on the idea for a long time, the bill surfaced publically only on March 13 and immediately raised big questions in the higher education establishment (see story).

Some observers questioned the timing of the bill so late in the legislative session and speculated that Ferrandino was pushing for a “legacy” measure, given that he’s term-limited so will leave the legislature after this session.

In response to criticism and questions, Ferrandino wrote a whole new version of the bill even before Monday’s three-hour hearing. Further changes are expected, given continued concerns. The panel didn’t discuss possible amendments nor vote on Monday and may consider the bill again on Wednesday.

Ferrandino’s amendment would give the Colorado Commission on Higher Ediucation a greater role in fleshing out the new funding system, but Monday’s hearing made clear that he hasn’t eliminated all concerns about the bill.

A key element of the bill is the proposed requirement that 52.5 percent of higher education funding be funneled through the College Opportunity Fund, a mechanism that provides tuition discounts to resident undergraduate students. The actual per-student amount has fluctuated up and down (mostly down) in recent years as state revenue declines have forced lawmakers to cut higher education funding. While 52.5 percent is about what has been allocated to stipends in recent years, many college leaders oppose locking that percentage into state law.

In his testimony Garcia made it clear that the department doesn’t feel the bill makes a significant change in the current system. “This funding model is based primarily on enrollment and includes some outcome-based factors,” he said.

Garcia said the bill “will inevitably shift resources” from research universities and rural colleges to large open-access institutions like Metropolitan State University and community colleges. “It’s a zero-sum game.”

He said later, “I think the bill makes a valiant effort to address really important issues” like college completion and closing ethnic completion. Bit, he added, “The current system’s that in place can work and is working.” Under terms of a recent higher education master plan, the DHE has negotiated performance contracts with all institutions, and an existing state law requires a portion of college funding be based on performance later in this decade, after certain base levels of state support for higher education are achieved.

The lieutenant governor said Ferrandino’s bill is “a too-complex way to get to where we’ve already decided we want to go.”

Ferrandino wasn’t convinced, saying, “I have to disagree. The current system isn’t working” because it’s based on an old model of allocations to institutions that penalizes schools like Metro.

The discussion was very polite, with Garcia and other witnesses all praising Ferrandino for listening to their concerns and being willing to make tweaks in his proposal. Officially, DHE is neutral on the bill.

Metro President Steve Jordan testified strongly in favor of the bill, as did Mark Superka, vice president of finance and administration for the community college system.

Representatives of Fort Lewis College, Western State Colorado University and Adams State University raised concerns about the bill, as did Todd Saliman, chief financial officer of the University of Colorado System.

“It will drive our tuition up. Students will pay more at the University of Colorado if this bill becomes law,” he said. “We think there should be access and affordability not just for the students of community colleges but also for the students of the University of Colorado.” Rich Schweigert, Colorado State University chief financial officer, echoed Saliman’s concerns.

Dick Kaufman, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, echoed the concerns of others when he said, “The basic problem here, I think everybody knows, is that we don’t have enough money in the system.”

Ferrandino said he would work on additional amendments to the bill, although he’s not willing to compromise the 52.5 percent earmark for tuition stipends. “I would leave it up to the committee on that issue.”

Read the current version of Ferrandino’s bill here.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”