The questions were flying like balls out of pitching machine Friday when House Speaker Mark Ferrandino defended his new higher education funding bill at a meeting of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.
Questions and comments by member Hereford Percy summed up what many of his colleagues: “What are we fixing?” and “Do we have time to do it adequately?”
Ferrandino’s bill proposes to create a new formula for dividing state support among Colorado colleges and universities, putting more money into the resident tuition discounts known as College Opportunity Fund (COF) stipends and also basing some college funding on student retention and graduation rates.
“For too long the budget was focused on the institutions and the needs of the institutions,” said Ferrandino, sitting alone at the witness table in the Capitol’s cavernous Old Supreme Court Chamber. “We need to look at what are the needs of the public.”
The University of Colorado and the University of Northern Colorado would lose funding under the plan, along with Adams State University, according to a spreadsheet Ferrandino has circulated.
The biggest gainers would be the Colorado State University System and Metropolitan State University of Denver. The bill would produce only modest additional revenue for the community college system. Colorado Mesa University, Fort Lewis College and the Colorado School of Mines also would gain funding.
The Denver Democrat’s bill has been rumored for weeks, was first circulated widely early this week and was introduced formally on Thursday as House Bill 14-1319 with more than 40 cosponsors.
Ferrandino, who’s serving his last year in the General Assembly, wants a bill passed into law this session. It would go into effect for the 2015-16 budget year. The measure does include a provision allowing CCHE and the institutions to review the bill over the summer and suggest possible changes to the 2015 legislature.
“We have eight weeks in the legislative session left,” Ferrandino said. “I know some people think that’s not a lot of time [but] if there’s a will there’s a way.”
Higher education lobbyists “do a very good job of making sure that nothing changes the status quo too much,” he said. “The only way I see for this conversation to really happen” is for the bill to be considered this session, he said.
Several commissioners were skeptical of the rush, saying a shift in how colleges are funded needs a longer conversation.
“This is a huge endeavor [for] eight weeks,” said commissioner Happy Haynes. “Help me visualize what the work plan looks like to reach resolution, a work plan that involves any of us sleeping.”
Ferrandino stuck to his guns and stressed he’s open to changes in the bill. “I want to emphasize here that this is the start of the conversation,” he said.
Calling the current funding system “something of a black box,” Ferrandino said state support needs to be better aligned with state policy goals like increasing enrollment of underserved students, doing a better job of retaining students and raising the numbers of students who receive degrees.
“People don’t have that high a view of higher education,” he said. “I believe something like this changes that conversation with the public. Their view is you give money to the institutions and it’s squandered, it’s wasted [on] highly paid executives, football stadiums.”
He also said, “I like change. I like taking the apple cart and turning it over and seeing what happens.”
Commissioner Patricia Pacey quipped, “I don’t want to upset the apple cart unless I think the new apple cart will produce a better product.”
Commissioners also were skeptical that the bill would produce significant change.
The measure would allocate more than half of state support based on enrollment through COF stipends, and only 3.9 percent on funding would be based on student retention and 6.1 percent on degree completion, according to a Department of Higher Education analysis.
“I still have a hard time understanding what this bill is trying to improve upon,” said commissioner Luis Colon. “I just don’t see what the incremental improvement is.”
Several commissioners noted that state has an existing higher education performance-funding plan, which is supposed to go into effect in a few years if certain budgetary targets are met.
Ferrandino said that program is too small to influence institutional behavior but would remain on schedule if his bill passes.
(State support, by the way, supplies only about a quarter of higher education funding, with the rest of institutional revenue supplied by tuition.)
Pacey, who’s an economist with experience in government finance, said she needed more information. “Can we expect something more substantial in the next week or two?” she asked. “Can we get some scenarios across different institutions?”
A word from the institutions
Ferrandino left after spending more than 90 minutes with the commission. He was followed at the witness table by two of the state’s more prominent presidents, Kay Norton of UNC and Bruce Benson of CU.
“Certainly we at UNC agree with the fundamental goal of the proposed legislation … that policy ought to drive funding and ought to be student focused,” Norton said. “What we don’t agree on is how to have a thoughtful conversation,” indicating the remaining weeks of the legislative session don’t provide enough time.
Benson said, “We do have a problem with the further inequities that would be created” by the bill. “The most troubling issue with the bill is the impact it will have over time. When are we going to hit another bump in the road, when we will have another downturn.”
The bill does a provision that would cushion loss of support by individual colleges when overall funding drops. And if state support dropped more than 15 percent in a year, future legislatures could suspend use of the bill’s formulas.
Ferrandino said he hopes to meet with college and universities leaders late next week, prepare amendments based on that meeting and then get back to the commission.
Read the bill text here.