“Leave it to the strategic plan.”

For months, that’s been the standard answer from Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration whenever anyone suggests any initiative or idea about the state’s struggling higher education system.

The “strategic plan” is the effort that got underway Jan. 27, when a Ritter-appointed panel held its first meeting to begin the work of creating a new blueprint for Colorado public colleges and universities. (See the bottom of this story for details on that effort.)

There’s been some push back against the administration’s desire to put all pending higher education issues into the strategic planning process, and two events last week illustrated the tension.

On Feb. 2 the House Local Government Committee killed House Bill 10-1157, a measure that would have created a method to generate county tax revenues for community and state four-year colleges (but not research universities).

The bill was dispatched without malice – even sponsor Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood agreed to the idea. John Karakoulakis, Department of Higher Education lobbyist, told the committee that the department would prefer the idea by considered as part of the strategic plan.

Things were a little more complicated Friday at the Colorado Commission on Higher Education meeting, where commissioners spent a couple of hours discussing pending legislation and whether to support or oppose individual bills, bucking the department in one case.

After about half an hour of discussion, and despite urgings to the contrary, the commission voted to endorse Senate Bill 10-079, which would allow Mesa State College in Grand Junction to offer graduate degrees. Mesa President Tim Foster, speaking to the meeting by telephone, said the college wants to offer such degrees in health care and education to meet regional demands.

The DHE opposes the bill in timing grounds because the strategic plan process is underway. Kathleen Bollard, representing the University of Colorado System, said CU “is concerned about the kind of mission creep that bill represents.” Bollard is assistant vice president for academic affairs at UCD.

But, the commissioner couldn’t come to agreement on another degree proposal, Senate Bill 10-101. It would allow Colorado Mountain College to offer bachelor’s degrees. (While it receives some state support, multi-campus CMC is governed by a locally elected board and supported by local property taxes in several central mountain counties.)

The department also opposes this bill, and other speakers Friday expressed concern about letting a two-year college offer four-year degrees without more study.

Alan Lamborn, a Colorado State University vice provost, called the bill “deeply troubling.” Lamborn has a non-voting seat on the CCHE, representing the statewide Faculty Council. (Lamborn, Bollard and CU lobbyist Kirsten Castleman provided a steady chorus of “yes, but” testimony during various parts of the CCHE meeting.)

Commissioners couldn’t achieve a majority for either “monitoring” the bill or opposing it and ultimately took no position.

The commission also discussed a trio of bills designed to smooth students’ transition from community colleges to four-year institutions, proposals that have caused discomfort in some quarters.

Senate Bill 10-108 is the touchiest, because it would allow private and for-profit colleges to join the state’s system of courses that are transferrable from any college to any other colleges.

Sponsor Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, made a spirited pitch for his bill, Lamborn had issues, some commissioners raised questions and DHE Director Rico Munn said such concerns “are legitimate issues.”

The commission voted to “monitor” the bill

House Bill 10-1208 is seen by some interests as a little more benign. It would require the higher ed system to develop statewide credit transfer agreements in 14 subject areas by 2016. Part of the reason this bill has raised fewer concerns is that the state already has four transfer agreements in place and hopes to have seven more done by spring. Community college system executives pitched the bill to the commission.

Bollard, again, had issues, saying CU would be comfortable with 10 transfer agreements. Lamborn said, “If academic council had its druthers, there wouldn’t be a bill.”

The commission voted to support the bill. The department also supports the measure – contingent on it not imposing a significant cost burden on the higher ed system.

Finally, Senate Bill 10-088 would allow community college students to basically have majors, rather than just receiving associate’s degrees in general studies. The idea is to encourage students to focus earlier on the subjects they want to pursue after transfer to four-year schools.

The commission decided to monitor the bill, which also is what the department is doing.

Those issues are on lots of agendas this week. The community college major bill and the Mesa graduate degrees proposal will be considered by the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, and the statewide transfer agreements measure will be heard by House Education on Thursday.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

🔗About the strategic planning process

The steering committee

The 14-member steering committee is headed by co-chairs Jim Lyons, head of the Governor’s Jobs Cabinet and a prominent Democratic lawyer, and Dick Monfort, vice chair of the Colorado Rockies and a member of the University of Northern Colorado trustees.

The committee’s other 10 voting members include four current or former CCHE members, a member of the state community college board, a member of the Denver Public Schools board, a former top CU administrator and another Ritter cabinet member.

There are no faculty or student members on the committee.

Munn and Don Elliman, the state’s chief operating officer, serve as ex-officio, non-voting members but play a prominent role in panel discussions.

(At the meeting Friday, citizen gadfly George Walker, a fixture at CCHE meetings, complained the steering committee is “still just the same white people.”

The commission usually listens politely to Walker but doesn’t engage with him. In this case, Commissioner Happy Haynes said, “I would like to get some information about the composition” of the steering committee and its subcommittees.

Munn responded by explaining how the department had sought ethnic and geographical diversity on the subcommittees, adding that he’s trying to pull together another advisory panel of legislators.

JulieMarie Shepherd, a non-voting student member of CCHE, asked about the lack of student representation. Munn gave a supportive but non-specific answer.)

The committee has scheduled 10 monthly meetings between now and November. The next meeting is Feb. 24. Meeting schedule

EdNews list of members and their backgrounds

Subcommittees

The steering group has established four subcommittees to focus on specific topics and make recommendations. Each subcommittee will have eight or nine members, including three from the steering committee and three others from the three tiers of the state system – research, four-year and community colleges.

As of Friday, subcommittee members hadn’t been formally announced.

The four subcommittees are:

Mission: The panel is assigned to examine what should be the role and mission of various kinds of colleges and universities (including private and technical), whether Colorado has the right mix of different institutions, what partnerships or relationships higher education should have with “external entities” and whether the state needs to change its oversight system, including CCHE and the current systems of institutions.

The group had an organizational meeting on Feb. 3.

– Subcommittee webpage and meeting schedule

Sustainability: This group is supposed to examine funding levels, efficiencies, new or substitute sources of funding, possible connections between funding and institutional performance, allocation and prioritization of financial aid and the appropriate funding balance for different kinds of institutions.

This subcommittee also has a second charge – to try to develop proposals for helping meet the short-term financial crisis in higher ed. The idea is to come up with ideas that can be considered by the 2010 legislature while it’s still in session. Lawmakers are holding up on some legislation, including Senate Bill 10-003, the higher ed financial flexibility measure, while waiting for the subcommittee.

The group met Feb. 1 to get organized and kick around ideas, but no members had any concrete suggestions except for tinkering with tuition. The panel meets again on Feb. 10.

– Subcommittee webpage and meeting schedule

Accessibility: This subcommittee is assigned to consider how both the state should define accessibility overall and for various types of institutions, how schools and the system should be held accountable for maintaining accessibility and how Colorado can address it serious ethnic and income college completion gaps.

– Subcommittee webpage and meeting schedule

Pipeline: This group is to consider how to reduce the state’s 30 percent freshman remediation rate, how to expand dual and concurrent enrollment programs, incentives to encourage return to college and degree completion by older students and reduction of average time to graduation.

– Subcommittee webpage and meeting schedule

Timetable

The steering committee plans to finish a preliminary report by early fall and a final document by November, the same month when Ritter’s successor as governor will be elected.