This year was supposed to be a legislative session of sweetness, light and more money for Colorado’s colleges and universities.
Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed a $100 million increase for higher ed, both for institutions and financial aid, a significantly higher percentage increase than he suggested for K-12. (Total state dollar spending on school districts, of course, dwarfs higher ed budgets.)
Democratic lawmakers liked the idea so much they plucked it out of the governor’s budget and put it in its own bill, Senate Bill 14-001. That measure also includes a 6 percent cap on tuition increases in 2014-15.
A key part of the proposal is that all colleges will receive an 11 percent increase based on the current formula for distributing money to institutions. That formula is a combination of various old factors. Policymakers have been reluctant to tinker with that formula, which tends to disadvantage faster growing institutions, for fear of reigniting old intercollegiate battles over money.
While colleges are likely to get their money next year, those old feuds could be stirred by a bill being floated by House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. The speaker, a genuine budget wonk, is serving his last term.
A draft of that bill was circulated to colleges on Monday evening, and it could stir old disagreements about funding shares.
State aid comes to colleges and universities in two forms. One is called the College Opportunity Fund (COF), and it’s supposed to represent stipends paid to resident undergraduate students to reduce college costs. The second is called fees for service, and it’s supposed to represent money the state pays to institutions for such “services” as graduate education, providing remote areas of the state and enrolling underserved students.
In practice, the dual system is primarily a way for the state to avoid having to count tuition payments as revenue that would be subject to limits in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Ferrandino’s proposal would more tightly define fees for service, and weight those payments based on such factors as institution size, research activity, graduate education, retention of students and degree completion. And it would set higher COF stipends for lower-income students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants.
There’s a lot of other complicated math in the bill, which wouldn’t go into effect until 2015-16, if it’s introduced and passed.
There isn’t much reaction yet to the bill draft. State colleges and universities, ever vigilant about protecting their financial interests, employ squads of analysts and lobbyists to scrutinize proposals like this, and you can be certain those folks are doing just that. A period of negotiation over the bill’s provisions is the likely next step.
The higher education system, which doesn’t have the same constitutional cushions as K-12, has been hit with two periods of significant budget cuts since 2000. But colleges, unlike public schools, can charge tuition, and those rates have steadily risen in recent years as institutions have tried to stay afloat. Tuition now provides roughly 75 percent of revenues.
Read the draft bill here.