What’s the answer to the financial woes, operating challenges and social changes facing Colorado’s public colleges and universities?

Strategic planning.

That’s the answer that was given time and again Wednesday by Department of Higher Education officials during their annual pre-session hearing before the Joint Budget Committee.

StockCollGrads120209JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, was skeptical of that answer, wondering aloud if the higher ed system’s yet-to-be-unveiled strategic planning process is coming too late, both given that there’s only a year left in the Ritter administration’s first term and that the higher ed system is in the middle of its second full-blown financial crisis in a decade.

The idea was first surfaced publicly earlier in the year by then-higher ed chief David Skaggs, who called for a year-long study to create a new college and university “master plan.”

Skaggs subsequently quit and the master plan’s September kickoff was delayed. New DHE Director Rico Munn told the committee Wednesday he finds the term master plan “awkward – I prefer ‘strategic plan.’ ” He assured lawmakers details would be revealed “in the coming weeks.”

Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education
Rico Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education
PHOTO CREDIT: Chalkbeat

Munn and Jim Polsfut, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, referred to the strategic plan repeatedly as they worked through their presentation.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about the strategic planning process,” Pommer finally said. “Why didn’t we develop a strategic plan four years ago?”

Polsfut acknowledged, “I believe we’re overdue,” but said because of the recession and state revenue losses, “the focus was placed on the crisis of the moment.”

“I guess I’m just puzzled,” said Pommer. “It could be interrupted and never be completed” if Gov. Bill Ritter doesn’t win re-election next year.

Polsfut stuck to his guns. “This is not tied to any one gubernatorial administration. It’s happening at a time when there’s no question that higher education has a tremendous need. … Maybe there’s no better moment politically.”

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder
Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder

Pommer in turn seemed unconvinced. “I don’t think we have the luxury of a strategic plan. … The institutions have been feeling this crisis for a long time.” College and universities believe “it’s time to start acting.”

As is traditional, the bulk of Wednesday’s daylong meeting was taken up by show-and-tell presentations from each of the state’s universities, colleges and systems. In addition to the six JBC members, about a dozen other lawmakers listened in. Here are some highlights:

Budget cuts have consequences

In response to a question, University of Colorado President Bruce Benson acknowledged that CU’s medical school this fall had its accreditation renewed for only 18 months because of concerns by the accrediting agency about lack of student diversity, amount of graduate debt and the low level of state support.

Benson said CU has been raising private funds for scholarships to attract minority students and that the medical school is near the bottom nationally in amount of state tax support.

Graduation rates

Like most states, Colorado has fairly low four-year college graduation rates. (See this DHE study for college-by-college details.)

JBC Vice-chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, asked, “Is there a way to expedite graduation so that people can get their degree within three years?”

“I think three-year has some real potential,” Polsfut said – suggesting it is yet another thing for the strategic plan to consider.

Munn noted “there are real system challenges to structure a system to make sure a student gets out in four or five years,” such as buildings and classroom space.

Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, noted, “Basically they [students and parents] are going to choose” how long they take to finish college. It’s going to be very hard for us to have a lot of control over that.”

Flexibility and autonomy

College leaders last spring failed to win passage of legislation that would have given trustees freedom from many state financial, construction approval and other regulations.

A fresh version of that idea will face the 2010 legislature, and several college leaders supported it Wednesday.

“It won’t solve the problems but will help us,” said University of Colorado President Bruce Benson. Joe Blake, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, agreed.

“We do need the flexibility you’ve been hearing about,” said Kay Norton, president of the University of Northern Colorado.

“I think we’re looking to you for fewer restrictions and more flexibility,” said Tim Foster, president of Mesa State College and DHE director under former Gov. Bill Owens.

The only cautionary word came from Munn. “There are some things in that bill that are conversations that need to be had,” but Munn said he’s not sure they should be in the bill or should be considered as part of, yes, the strategic plan.

“Let’s hope this is the year we really get flexibility,” said Pommer.

The conversation also expanded to a more theoretical idea, cutting colleges free from state tax support and turning them into largely autonomous “authorities” similar to University Hospital or Denver Health.

“I think that’s the direction higher education is going,” Foster said.

Keller said, “I think you’re right we probably have to move in that direction” but said “the only concern about that” is whether colleges would increase tuition rates too much.

Foster and Benson argued that college boards are too attuned to student and public wishes to let that happen.

“I think we should leave the tuition setting authority with the boards,” Pommer said. “I frankly think it’s something the state has way too much involvement in.”

The legislature traditionally sets a ceiling on tuition increases with a footnote in the annual state budget bill.

“You don’t have to set that footnote,” Foster said.

Foreshadowing budget conflicts to come

Before the recession hit, the higher ed system actually had a few years of 7-8 percent budget increases. Some colleges received higher percentage increases than others in an effort to improve funding for schools whose budgets lagged the most behind comparable schools in other states.

Facing budget cuts in the next two fiscal years, the Ritter administration is proposing to take the biggest percentage cuts from the schools that previously received the biggest increases.

JBC member Rep. Mark Ferrandino questioned that, saying it “disproportionately hurts some schools and not others” and doesn’t take into account factors like enrollment increases as some schools.

Metro State President Steven Jordan said the governor’s plan would restore and compound old inequities between colleges.

Jim Polsfut, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education
Jim Polsfut, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education

Munn and Polsfut disagreed. Munn said considering old formulas “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” and he and Polsfut suggested this issue also should be left to the – you guessed it – the strategic planning process. “These are the very issues we now have a rich opportunity to study,” Polsfut said brightly.

And … football

Explaining the duties of the CU Board of Regents, chair Steve Bosley said, “We’re also responsible for a losing football team.”

After listening to Blake march through a 16-page PowerPoint printout on CSU’s accomplishments, challenges and plans, Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said, “There’s no mention of a road map for returning the Bronze Boot to Colorado.”

“We’re not adverse to theft,” Blake replied.

“I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” said a bewildered Keller. (The Bronze Boot is the trophy that goes to the winner of the annual CSU-Wyoming game, which the Rams lost this year.)

Last word

“Let me make sure I understand this. There is no money, right?” – Adams State College board President Tim Walters

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