Sticker shock

Tuition increase “holiday” could be over for Colorado students

College tuition costs could start rising more steeply under Gov. John Hickenlooper’s new budget plan, which would cut $20 million from direct state support of colleges and universities.

That cut, combined with predicted increases in college operating costs, could lead to average tuition increases of 8.7 percent for resident undergraduate students for the 2016-17 school year, according to Hickenlooper’s annual budget letter to the legislative Joint Budget Committee.

Tuition increases have been below 6 percent this year and last.

The administration is recommending that college and university boards be free to set 2016-17 tuition rates as they see fit, ending the past system of legislative oversight.

The governor’s recommendation is in line with a resolution passed last Thursday by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which voted 6-3 in favor of allowing college trustees to set tuition rates.

The proposal is sure to spark controversy during the 2016 legislative sessions. In 2014, lawmakers imposed a 6 percent annual ceiling on tuition increases for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

“Not having a tuition limit is very sobering,” CCHE chair Monte Moses said during last week’s meeting. He voted for the resolution, as did past chair Dick Kaufman. But Kaufman warned, “Be prepared to negotiate something with the JBC. … They will want some kind of line in the sand.”

Asked earlier last week about tuition-setting flexibility, JBC member Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said, “I think the General Assembly should have a role in setting tuition policy. It was too easy to shirk responsibility and give up that role in the guise of “flexibility” [in the past]. Yes, these decisions are hard, but they go with the territory, and they’re part of the job of elected policymakers.”

Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, who will chair the JBC in 2016, said, “If institutions must increase tuition to backfill for the lack of state funding, they should also be prepared to explain what they can do to reduce student debt through strategies such as shorter completion time and more partnerships with school districts to reduce the need for remediation.”

Unlike K-12 schools, whose funding is partly protected by the state constitution and which can’t charge their students, the state’s colleges and universities are completely exposed to swings in the state budget and can use tuition to compensate for state cuts during downturns.

As state funding shrank after the 2008 recession, lawmakers threw colleges a lifeline with a 2010 law that gave institutions greater power over tuition than they had in the past.

That law set a 9 percent cap for five years but allowed the commission to approve larger increases if institutions provided detailed rationales for why they needed more money.

Most state colleges took advantage of that flexibility, and double-digit rate increases were imposed by some institutions.

Those rising tuition rates sparked concern among legislators, who took advantage of improving state revenues in 2014 to increase funding for higher education by 11 percent and also set that 6 percent cap on tuition increases for resident undergraduate students. The 2015 session also was able to increase higher education funding.

Tuition increases in recent years put pressure on student and family budgets and also came at a time when the state was trying to increase enrollment of low-income and first-generation students, for whom college costs can be a significant barrier.

The cap has led to moderation of tuition increases. The median percent increase in tuition was 5 percent for 2014-15, the lowest since 2006-07, when it was 2.5 percent.

This year state colleges and universities are receiving about $740 million in state support but raise more than $2 billion in tuition revenue. Hickenlooper’s budget plan would shave $20 million from that $740 million. The Department of Higher Education estimates that colleges’ fixed costs will rise by about $56 million in 2016-17, meaning institutions will have to cover $76 million with tuition increases.

While that translates to an average potential increase of 8.7 percent, possible tuition hikes at individual colleges are impossible to predict now. Boards of trustees make tuition decisions on several factors, not just revenue. For instance, institutions usually consider tuition rates at competing institutions, both in Colorado and outside, to avoid pricing themselves out of the market.

Different colleges also have different abilities to raise revenue. A big institution like the University of Colorado Boulder has a large enrollment and relatively high tuition already, so a small percentage increase can yield significant revenue. But a smaller, lower-tuition institution like Adams State University may need a larger percentage increase to raise the money it needs.

The debate over tuition focuses just on what’s paid by Colorado residents who are undergraduate students. Colleges long have had the power to charge what they like for out-of-state undergrads and for all graduate students.

Get the details on college costs in the Department of Higher Education’s most recent tuition and fees report.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.