Colorado college students are again facing tuition increases next school year, but the jumps are a bit more moderate than in recent years.

IllustrationThe increases range from nothing at Colorado State University-Pueblo to 16 percent at Adams State University in Alamosa. The top increases in the previous two academic years were 20 percent and 18 percent.

Mention “tuition” to any Colorado politician, higher ed official or policy wonk, and you’ll see a furrowed brow and hear fears about declining access to higher education, scaring away low-income students and squeezing the budgets of middle-class scholars.

College cost inflation is complex and a national concern, but in Colorado the main driver of rising tuition is crystal clear – the state provides a lot less money per student that it used to. In fact, the amounts that the state is providing towards higher education and the share shouldered by students and families has almost reversed.

During the 2000-01 academic year the state spent $6,742 per student, and average resident tuition was $3,218.

For next year, according to the Department of Higher Education, the state share will be $3,342 per student, with average tuition at $7,287.

So, average tuition has risen about 126 percent since the start of the century.

The state has weathered two major recessions since 2000-01. Because of limits on the legislature’s ability to increase spending or raise taxes, and because of mandatory spending requirements for K-12 and for Medicaid, higher education has taken a big share of the cuts needed to balance state budgets in the tight years following those economic downturns.

With tuition (and fees) the only accessible source of new revenue, the 2010 legislature passed a law allowing college boards of trustees to raise tuition up to 9 percent a year through 2015-16. (In the past the legislature set tuition increase ceilings in the annual state budget bill.) The law also allowed colleges that wanted higher rates to ask permission from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education through documents called financial accountability plans. Such flexibility has been requested by and granted to every state college and system except the Colorado School of Mines. (Get links to college and system “FAP” plans on this page.)

Price tags for next year

Other than Adams’ 16 percent hike for next year and a 14 percent jump and Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, increases for resident undergraduate students cluster around 6 percent or 9 percent at other institutions.

Tuition chart
Figures are for base tuition for 30 credit hours and don’t reflect different rates for certain programs or other variations. (Click to view larger version.) Source: Department of Higher Education

Improved state revenues made it possible for the 2013 legislature to increase state higher ed support to about $544 million next year, up from $521 million in the current year but significantly less than the recent high point of some $702 million in 2009-10. Some lawmakers were grumpy that tuition hikes were as high as they were, but institutions felt they had no choice.

For 2011-12, “The majority of institutions raised resident undergraduate tuition rates between 9.0 and 15.0 percent,” according to a DHE report. That was the first year of the tuition flexibility law. Most of the increases were in the 5-15 percent range in 2012-13. (See the department’s full 2011-12 tuition and fees report here, and read the 2012-13 report here.)

The percentage increases of recent years are part of larger financial strategies. Some institutions have raised tuition but kept a tighter lid on fee hikes, moderating the increase in overall cost of attendance. Other colleges have posted double-digit tuition increases partly because they’re requiring students to take more credits per semester to qualify as full time. And, some schools have charged the same amount for expanded class loads as they charge for standard full-time schedules. That makes it possible for students to graduate sooner and save money – if they’re willing to take heavier course loads.

The sticker price is not the real one

Much of the political rhetoric over tuition ignores the complexities of college costs, something that’s understood by almost every parent and student who’s wrestled with college bills.

For starters, double-digit percentage increases often reflect fairly modest dollar increases. For example, Adams State’s 16 percent increase next year is a $611 jump for the cost of 30 credit hours. The resident undergraduate tuition for that class load will be $4,427 next year, up from $3,816 this year.

By contract, base tuition at the University of Colorado Boulder is increasing 8.7 percent, but that translates to a dollar amount of $704, given a higher starting point.

Even more important, the amount of money available for financial aid has been rising rapidly at the same time as tuition rates have risen. (Among other things, college tuition flexibility plans have to include provisions for easing the burden, particularly on lower-income students. Colleges and universities have been plowing part of their additional tuition income back into financial aid.)

Federal and institutional financial aid has grown significantly, although state-funded aid has been mostly stagnant in recent years. The amount of federal Pell grants increased by 170 percent from 2006-07 to 2011-12, according to DHE, while aid supplied by individual colleges grew by nearly 88 percent during the same period.

Some $2.3 billion in financial was available to Colorado students in 2011-12, $1.2 billion of that in loans. That represents an overall increase of 57.6 percent from 2006-07 to 2011-12.