College presidents pitched their institutions’ strengths and accomplishments to the Joint Budget Committee and other legislators Monday at the annual day-long hearing on spending for the state’s colleges and universities.

Colorado college campus montage
From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

But looming over the session was a bigger question – what happens if there’s no tax support for higher education in the future?

“Enrollment is at an all-time high while funding, as we all know, is going in the opposite direction,” noted Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also executive director of the Department of Higher Education. “We know that some of our institutions are on increasingly shaky financial ground.”

Complete loss of state support “is a reality if we don’t change our [state] funding system in the next three to five years,” warned House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.

Defunding higher education “is not something I would want to see at all, but the discussion is now happening,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the budget committee. “I’m very worried when people say they’re talking about defunding.”

Some of the college leaders touched on that delicate question during their oral presentations to lawmakers.

“I’d like to break down a little misconception that CU doesn’t need” state funding, University of Colorado President Bruce Benson said. “The state funding and tuition is what pays our operating costs,” he said. “The state funds are still critical to us.”

University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton, known for candid views about the future of higher education, said, “We don’t want to give up our public mission.” But, she said, the new model for public higher education “is a semi or quasi private model.” She recommended that future state funding be focused on direct financial aid to students and that institutions be held “responsible for broad goals” but otherwise deregulated.

Mesa State College President Tim Foster
Mesa State College President Tim Foster

Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster, a longtime advocate of institutional autonomy, sounded a similar note: “The more you can allow us as an institution to chart our own path … the better off we’ll be.”

UNC trustee chair Dick Monfort was blunter than his president. “I think our funding is going to zero. … If you go far enough into the future, that’s what you’ve got, a big goose egg. … Our quality will be affected.”

Jay Helman, president of Western State College in Gunnison, said, “I think we’re at a watershed in the history of public higher education in America.” Past levels of public support are “not likely to be here in the future.”

The possibility of no state support was framed this way in a lengthy set of JBC questions sent to colleges and the Department of Higher Education before the hearing:

“What would be the consequences to your institution or governing board if there is no state funding for higher education by FY [fiscal year] 2015-16?”

Some of the likely outcomes, according to colleges’ written responses, would be higher tuition, fewer low-income students in college, loss of programs, damage to regional economies and more.

“They essentially would have to double tuition,” said Garcia of how the schools would respond to a loss of state support.

College and university responses

Here are excerpts from the colleges’ written responses to the “what if” question:

Colorado Community College System – ‘Would have profound consequences for maintaining geographic, minority and low-income access to higher education in the state. … It would require doubling resident tuition … enrollment would drop dramatically,” requiring additional tuition increases. There would be a particularly hard impact on rural community colleges.

Colorado School of Mines – “The biggest challenge for Mines will be to generate the necessary funding for financial aid to assist low income and middle income students.” Hiring freezes, furloughs and layoffs “are possible.”

University of Northern Colorado – “We fully expect by FY16 that state will no longer be making direct investments in higher education institutions, and we are preparing for that eventuality.” Loss of state funding would hurt financial aid for low and middle income students. “The long-term effects of such a cut would extend throughout the state in the form of fewer graduates in high-need areas.”

Colorado State University System – “Our access mission will be compromised. The burden of the reduction will likely fall on our resident students with the need to nearly double current tuition rates in order to maintain quality academic programs and retain high quality faculty.” There would be elimination of positions and closure of programs and departments.

University of Colorado System – “The university would work to ensure the quality of the institution was not compromised. However, tuition increases would be inevitable as well as increased pressure on class sizes and class availability.”

Western State College – “The elimination of state funding would threaten the viability of the institution and create considerable strain on the ability to cover daily operational costs.”

Adams State College – “Excessive increases in tuition will dramatically reduce access for the low-income student population we serve. … Massive tuition increases would be necessitated. … These dramatic steps would almost immediately jeopardize the viability of the institution.”

Colorado Mesa University – “CMU would survive. Access to Colorado students would be severely compromised – many would unfortunately find CMU unaffordable. Resources would be directed to attracting more out of state students who have the ability to pay. … Our public purpose would be seriously compromised.”

Fort Lewis College – “The college would likely employ a combination of resident tuition increases and expenditure reduction. … Such a reduction would fundamentally alter the identity of Fort Lewis College.” Loss of enrollment “would further exacerbate the college’s long-term financial sustainability.”

Metropolitan State College – “There would be many negative consequences,” including higher tuition, possible elimination of high cost programs significantly reduced expenses. “Furthermore, the college would be unable to meet its statutory mission” of providing access for underserved and low-income students.

Aims Community College and Colorado Mountain College, which receive some state funding but also are supported by local property taxes, gave similar answers.

The area technical colleges answered, “This would be an unsustainable model.” This group of institutions includes three tech schools in Denver, Aurora and on the Western Slope.

Read the full answers to the funding question – and all the other questions – in the 156-page response document. The answers to the funding question are on pages 50, 60, 67, 73, 80, 87, 97, 108, 115, 123, 137 and 147.

Random meeting notes

Different schools use different tactics and tones to differentiate themselves with the budget committee. Some presidents took a serious tone to discuss challenges and funding; others were upbeat and focused on their schools’ accomplishments.

Some presidents, like Nancy McCallin of the community colleges, Steve Jordan of Metro State and Benson, carried the show by themselves, or with just a trustee chair and a top aide. Other schools, like CSU, Colorado Mesa and Adams brought big delegations, including students, who were particularly well received by committee members.

The Colorado Mesa delegation even brought lawmakers boxes of toffee from a Grand Junction candy maker.

The session also provided some lawmakers a forum to air their own interests. Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock and a vocal advocate of more online and technologically driven education, asked several times about innovation in instruction.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen
Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen

Gerou repeatedly mentioned her unhappiness with the current method of allocating state money among campuses – she feels it doesn’t reward innovation – and about the role and value of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. “Getting rid of CCHE is not out of the question for me,” she said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed higher education budget for 2012-13 calls for a cut of about $60 million, half from institutional funding and half from state financial aid. That would take institutional support from about $519 million to some $490 million.

Financial aid would drop to about $70 million. That proposed cut drew little comment from legislators. State aid now is a small piece of assistance to students, with federal and institutional aid providing the bulk of support for students.

Metro’s Jordan, however, raised a concern about the cut, noting his students receive the single largest chunk of aid from the state program.