Senate panel not persuaded, kills tuition cap bill

A bare, 5-4 majority of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday killed a measure that would have set a 6 percent cap on annual tuition increases by state colleges and universities.

Although Senate Bill 15-062 was sponsored by the panel’s senior Democrat, Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, and all five committee Republicans voted against it, the nearly two hours of discussion really weren’t partisan.

Rather, committee members of both parties complained about the bind created by state underfunding of higher education – which has driven rising tuition – and the legislature’s inability to do much about it.

The bill would have indefinitely capped annual resident undergraduate tuition increases at 6 percent, although colleges could have applied for waivers in years when the legislature didn’t increase higher education funding by at least the rate of inflation.

Kerr said tuition increases were one of the issues he heard about most frequently while campaigning for reelection last year.

State colleges and universities took substantial reductions in state support after the 2008 recession shrank state revenues. In compensation, lawmakers gave colleges the flexibility to raise tuition by up to 9 percent a year – or at a higher rate if approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

With revenues improving, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Kerr last session won a $100 million increase in higher education funding – along with a 6 percent cap on increases for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 budget years.

Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing a similar bump for higher education in the next budget year, but there are widespread concerns those sorts of increases won’t continue for long.

Citing other future demands on the state budget, Department of Higher Education lobbyist Kachina Weaver told the committee, “It’s extremely unlikely that we’re going to continue those kinds of funding levels” in the future.

Given that, committee Republicans were reluctant to limit colleges’ options to respond to variations in state support. “It seems to me we need to give some flexibility to higher education,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs and chair of the committee.

“I think we should be very careful about capping their options,” said Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker.

The whole conversation seemed to depress Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. After a discussion about how little support higher education receives in the context of all college and university revenue, he said, “We’re actually far worse off than we thought we were. … This sort of blew my mind, this conversation.”

Tuition is by no means a dead issue. The cap on increases could resurface this session, and if that doesn’t happen the 2016 session will face the issue. The current 6 percent cap will expire for 2016-17, and a higher education department  study on what drives college costs is due at the end of the this year, giving lawmakers fresh food for thought in 2016.

Postscript: Despite the thoughtful tone of the hearing itself, the Senate Democratic Caucus couldn’t resist taking a jab at Republicans in an emailed news release that went out shortly after the vote.

“Republicans in the Senate Education Committee rejected the bill today on a partisan vote, meaning the already heavy burdens of tuition and student loan debt on Colorado students and families will continue to escalate,” read the release. Such news releases are a common tactic used by both parties after committee and floor votes.