Colorado college students, still worrying about paying their bills this year, could face another 9 percent tuition increase in the 2010-11 school year.

StockCollCosts100909If that happens, it would come on top of overall 9 percent increases for state residents this school year and 2008-09 hikes of 9.5 percent at research institutions, 7.5 percent at four-year colleges and 5 percent at community colleges.

Looking back over a longer period is even more sobering. According to a Department of Higher Education report, “The largest percentage increases over the last 10 years [1998-99 to 2008-09] have occurred at the research institutions, ranging from 93 percent at Colorado State University to 237 percent at CU-Boulder for the business program. At four-year colleges, increases over 10 years have ranged from 56 percent at Metro State to 181 percent at Mesa State, with community colleges at 47 percent.” (Note: Mesa officials report that the actual increase over the period was 100 percent.)

Tuition hikes for out-of-state undergrads and graduate students have been even steeper. Colleges generally are allowed to set those rates as high as the market will bear.

A primary driver of higher tuition has been declining state tax-dollar support for public colleges and universities.

The 9 percent recommendation for 2010-11 was made Thursday by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education but is not the last word on the subject. The commission is proposing the 9 percent be an average within institutions or systems, with boards of trustees having flexibility to set different rates for individual programs.

While CCHE (unlike most state agencies) is allowed to make its own recommendations to the legislative Joint Budget Committee, the governor’s office also makes its own proposals for higher education spending, including tuition. (There was a bit of a stir a year ago because the CCHE, trying to make a point about the fiscal threats to higher ed, proposed significantly higher spending than the governor did.) Executive branch budget plans for 2010-11 are due to the JBC Nov. 2.

The legislature won’t make any final decision on tuition (and the rest of the budget) until April. The legislature typically sets a percentage ceiling on annual tuition increases in a footnote to the main state budget bill.

Some college presidents have been pushing for giving trustees greater freedom to set their own tuition and financial aid policies. Such a proposal went nowhere in the 2009 legislative session but could resurface in 2010.

Gov. Bill Ritter and many legislators have tried to keep some lid on tuition increases. But, facing the prospect of having to cut the 2010-11 general fund budget nearly $200 million below already-lean 2009-10 levels, it will be difficult to avoid tuition increases for 2010-11.

Higher ed spending was hit hard by the first recession earlier this decade and has been jolted again by the current downtown. College funding is being held stable at 2008-09 levels, but only with the help of federal stimulus funding, which ends in 2011.

While tuition increases are a challenge for many students and families, they don’t look quite so bad when placed in a larger context. While Colorado rates have been increasing faster than those at other Western schools, tuition here remains lower overall than that at peer institutions around the nation, according to DHE.

And, according to department report issued in January, “As a percentage of median income, tuition and fee rates remained relatively flat from FY96-97 through FY02-03.  From FY03-04 through FY05-06, tuition and fees as a percentage of median income began to increase at the Tier 1 and Tier 2 institutions; the increase was more substantial for the Tier 1 institutions.” (Translation: FY means fiscal year, which runs from July to June; Tier 1 includes research institutions like CU and CSU, and Tier 2 includes four-year colleges.)

For some students, particularly lower-income ones, tuition increases have been offset to varying degrees by increases in both state and federal financial aid.

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