College fees soar; flaws found in system

Fees at state colleges and universities jumped 142 percent from 2006 to 2010 while tuition increased 69 percent, according to a new state audit.

In addition to the dramatic rise, the audit found a wide variety of problems with administration of fees, ranging from lack of clear and complete information for parents and students to possibly inappropriate use of fees in a few instances at a few campuses.

“Existing controls governing the fee structure should be improved,” the auditors concluded, adding that improvement also is needed in “the transparency and consistency of Colorado’s current public higher education fee structure.”

Campus montage
From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

Department of Higher Education officials told the Legislative Audit Committee, which spent more than 90 minutes reviewing the audit Tuesday, that they accept the auditors’ findings and plan to have fixes in place by September 2011.

In 2009-10, students paid $216 million in fees. Total tuition and fees rose 76 percent in that time period. In 2006, fees were 9 percent of total tuition and fees, rising to 13 percent in the 2009-10 school year. Statewide enrollment increased 14 percent during the period while state tax support of colleges slid 42 percent.

Major findings and recommendations of the audit include:

• Lack of complete information about fees for parents and students: Auditors cited gaps and problems on both the DHE’s website and on institutional web pages. “The reality is … you can find that information. Not enough people know where to look for it,” said DHE director Rico Munn. “We need to lay it out in a much clearer way.” Munn noted that a new federal law requires colleges to have online cost calculators by next year.

• Inconsistency in student approval of fees. State law requires student body votes for certain kinds of fees, but there seem to be varying interpretations of which fees require such votes.

• Some fees may be higher than necessary. In some cases, auditors found that fund balances for certain fee-supported programs that were larger than the annual expenses of the programs.

Fee highlights & lowlights

  • Adams State has the highest undergrad mandatory fees ($1,742), the largest five-year increase (100 percent) and the highest percentage of fees as a part of total fees and tuition (39 percent).
  • The lowest fees are at some community colleges ($150), and at some of those colleges fees are only 5 percent of total tuition and fees.
  • Mesa State fees have declined 2 percent in the last five years.
  • Fee increases over the last five years were 60 percent at CU-Boulder, 27 percent at CSU-Fort Collins, 79 percent at UNC and 42 percent at Metro.

• Questionable uses of fees. Auditors reviewed 217 expenses from fee accounts at six campuses. Of those 30 didn’t match allowable uses, and nine were considered “questionable” uses. The major problem seemed to be that fee revenue was mixed with other kinds of income, making it impossible to track which dollars were used for which expenses. Among spending noted by the auditors were payment of staff country club fees and purchase of a Nuggets playoff ticket. (The colleges weren’t identified.)

• Incomplete review of fee policies by DHE. While state law and the constitution give college trustees wide financial latitude, colleges are supposed to follow overall fee policies approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. The auditors found gaps in department review of campus policies. The auditors also noted a lack of independent reviews of fee spending at some campuses.

• Lack of a clear distinction between tuition and fees. The auditors said there sometimes is no clear difference between the spending of tuition revenue and fees, and that there needs to be clearer definition of fees and a third category, what are called “charges for service.” Those generally include such things as application fees and charges for adding or dropping courses.

The state higher education system has been under increasing financial pressure in recent years, primarily because state tax support has declined steadily, forcing boards of trustees to rely more heavily on tuition, fees and outside funding.

Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education

“Student fees at one point were a relatively nominal part” of college costs, Munn told the committee. “As state support has decreased student fees have become a more significant part of that mixture.”

Deputy State Auditor Cindi Stetson said, “The fee structure in higher education is highly complex.”

The audit reinforced that, saying, “the array of student fees … is complex and … can be assessed for virtually any purpose.” Fees are imposed for student government and programs, campus construction projects, student centers and health clinics, insurance, athletics and recreation, and administrative services. In addition, there is a wide range of fees for specific courses.

As state funding for campus construction projects has dried up in recent years, some institutions have raised fees to pay for new buildings.

Auditors did a detailed examination of 215 fees at six of the state’s 25 institutions, including the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University-Fort Collins, Mesa State College, Metropolitan State College, Northeastern Junior College and Pikes Peak Community College. They also used DHE reports to provide a statewide picture of fees.

At the six institutions reviewed, the number of campus-wide mandatory fees ranged from five to 23.

The audit recommended that the CCHE and college boards work together to reform the fee structure, “with the overall goal of developing a more rational fee system,” in the words of Stetson.

In anticipation of the audit, the commission on Aug. 5 created a committee of students and college financial officers to study campus fees.

While audit committee members generally went easy on DHE executives, there was an undercurrent of disagreement about how standardized an improved fee system should be, including the definition of “student benefit.”

Mark Cavanaugh, DHE chief financial official, agreed that “we could use some additional help here” but warned against hamstringing individual institutions.

Committee member Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said there “needs to be a set definition, a known definition, something hard and fast.” He added, “There likely will be a recommendation [for legislation] at some point out of this committee.”

The higher ed lobbyists attending the meeting undoubtedly took note.

The audit also found minor problems with procurement – primarily a few instances of late reporting of purchasing card spending – at CSU-Fort Collins, Mesa and Metro.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.