Higher ed panel wraps it up

The committee that’s been studying the future of state colleges and universities finished its work Wednesday with unanimous approval of a strategic plan that warns of the looming crisis facing higher education and recommends increased tax support for the system.

Cover of Colorado higher education strategic plan“I think it’s a product that we can all be proud of. I hope it just doesn’t end up on somebody’s shelf,” said committee co-chair Jim Lyons.

The plan will be formally presented to Gov. Bill Ritter and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education at a meeting Nov. 4. The ball then will be in the commission’s court to refine the strategic plan if it chooses, adopt it and make recommendations to the legislature.

“We will use it to the very best of our ability,” Jim Polsfut, a member of the steering committee and also chair of the CCHE, said Wednesday. “I don’t know of any particular disagreement by CCHE members right now.”

The 12-member steering committee included Polsfut and CCHE member Greg Stevinson, and several other commission members served on the four subcommittees that developed preliminary recommendations for the steering group.

Ritter, who kicked off the whole process late last year by appointing the steering committee, isn’t running for office so won’t be involved when the debate about the future of higher education shifts to the Capitol next year.

Don Elliman, an ex officio member of the steering committee, noted the unpredictable future facing the proposed strategic plan. “If the new administration doesn’t buy into it, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.” (Elliman is state chief operating officer and a key Ritter advisor.)

The committee’s strategic plan is titled “The Degree Dividend, Building our economy and preserving our way of life. The document’s cover also includes the admonition, “Colorado Must Decide.”

The document makes three key assertions:

  • Higher education is an asset that supports Colorado’s quality of life.
  • The state system “is dramatically off track” and falling behind in meeting state needs.
  • Colorado needs to both increase funding for higher ed and focus on significantly improving completion rates for certificates and degrees.

The plan offers four broad recommendations, backed up by specific suggestions for achieving them:

  • The state must increase its investment and ensure affordability for students.
  • Regional, ethnic and income gaps in admission, retention and completion must be reduced.
  • Systematic improvements are needed in the pipeline for students to move from high school into college.
  • The structure of higher ed must be set up to allow for advancement of statewide priorities – such as increased enrollment and completion – that might be beyond the missions of individual institutions.

The text of the report also evaluates the likelihood of achieving those recommendations under each of four funding scenarios – labeled Accelerated Erosion, Losing Ground, Restoration and Competitive. While steering committee members acknowledge that the short- and mid-term funding prospects are bleak for higher ed, they clearly support the Competitive model, which would involve tripling of state support to about $1.5 billion a year.

Many observers believe the most likely financial prospect is Accelerated Erosion in 2011-12, which the committee defined as state funding of less than $550 million a year.

(Read the final text of the full report.)

Jim Lyons and Dick Monfort
Jim Lyons (left) and Dick Monfort, co-chairs of the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee, review materials at start of the group's final meeting Oct. 27, 2010.

Although the report was virtually done except for last-minute tweaks and printing, committee members couldn’t resist reprising discussions that have dominated the process since the panel’s first meeting, held nine months to the day before Wednesday’s final session.

The steering committee’s work and the proposed strategic plan surfaced a number of touchy issues, including funding, the role of the CCHE, the organization and capacities of the state system and the missions of individual colleges.

Here are highlights from (and background on) the last-minute conversation Wednesday:


Polsfut wondered if the committee should be more specific about possible sources of additional revenue for higher ed. (The plan lists possible sources but makes no recommendations.)

“I think there are some jurisdictional limits on what we can say,” said Lyons, meaning those decisions should be up to CCHE and the legislature. “I think we’ve reached the limit.”

The other co-chair, Dick Monfort, said he felt the panel should specifically recommend that a funding proposal be made to voters in 2011. Members agreed with that idea. “No reason we shouldn’t hold their feet to the fire,” said Lyons, speaking of legislators, who would have to decide on any state-proposed ballot measure.

Monfort also raised the issue of whether the report should go into more detail about how money is allocated to individual colleges, but Lyons said, “I think it would be usurping the CCHE.”

‘Governance’ vs. ‘oversight’

Steering committee members have made it clear they favor a stronger CCHE, an idea resisted by some college presidents and trustees. In an effort to ease that sensitivity, the panel agreed to scrub the strategic plan of the word “governance.” Lyons said, “We’re emphasizing coordination and oversight in place of regulation. … Governance for individual institutions will remain the same.” (All state colleges currently have their own appointed boards of trustees. The University of Colorado, Colorado State University and community college boards oversee multiple campuses.)

The plan recommends that CCHE launch a study of each college and university’s role and mission and make recommendations to the legislature. Some college leaders, such as Metro State President Steve Jordan, believe the state system currently is weighted too much toward research universities at one end and community colleges at the other.

Several panel members agree with Jordan’s view that the state needs to increase capacity at four-year institutions to serve the needs of the minority and first-generation students who will be the largest group of new students in the future.

Greg Stevinson and Ray Baker
Panel members Greg Stevinson (left) and Ray Baker confer during the meeting.

Some universities, particularly the University of Colorado system, vigorously disagree with the notion that they aren’t able to serve new kinds of students and are fearful of a potential funding shift that could affect them.

Support of graduate programs

The proposed plan favors – in concept – giving more state funds directly to students (currently done in a partial fashion through the College Opportunity Fund) and less directly to institutions (known as fees for service). That prospect that makes some institutions, particularly those with expensive graduate programs, uneasy.

(The plan also suggested that colleges be funded partly on the basis of performance – like graduation rates – but not until after overall financial support of higher education increases.)

The strategic plan specifically mentions only two expensive graduate programs – CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus and Colorado State University’s veterinary medicine program – as services that might need direct state support.

There was some discussion Wednesday about whether the committee should expand that list, but it decided not to do so. “The specific balance has to be decided by the CCHE,” said member John Bliss.

Metro’s Jordan has been the most supportive of the strategic plan’s direction, while leaders at CU, the University of Northern Colorado, Mesa State College and, to a lesser extent, the Colorado School of Mines have raised more concerns.

(Read the institutions’ formal comments here.)

The idea of writing a new strategic plan started jelling in the Ritter administration during the summer of 2009 but initially was delayed after then-higher ed director David Skaggs abruptly left his job, reportedly after a disagreement with Ritter over the plan process.

The governor and new director Rico Munn got the idea going again late that year, and Ritter appointed panel members just before 2009 ended. Committee deliberations bogged down a bit in August, when the time came to start making specific recommendations, but in the end the panel met its deadline and seemed happy with its work.

“I think the report as modified is perfect,” said Stevinson.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.