Cost of college

Higher education panel wrestles with controlling tuition rates

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Parents talk to Memphis Rise employees about the new charter school

For two years, Colorado college students have been protected by a 6 percent cap on tuition increases.

But a draft new policy being considered by state higher education officials looks a lot like an old system that gave colleges and universities significant flexibility in setting tuition rates. In some instances, that led to double-digit increases.

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education, meeting Thursday in Colorado Springs, gave Department of Higher Education staff the go-ahead to refine the proposal before the commission makes a final decision.

“It’s expiring,” Diane Duffy, department chief financial officer, said of the current tuition cap. “The state of Colorado is going to need to do something” about tuition.

Any new policy would amount to a recommendation, with legislators having the final say.

In broad terms, the proposed policy would work like this: Every year the department and the commission would consider the expected amount of state funding for the coming school year and affordability factors for students, plus the financial needs of individual colleges and universities, in order to recommend a tuition increase cap.

Institutions would be allowed to increase tuition above the cap if they met commission-set requirements for affordability, student completion and other factors.

The biggest factor in the tuition equation is the level of state support.

“They are so inextricably linked,” Duffy said.

What college costs

State budget cuts after the 2008 recession forced state colleges and universities to raise tuition rates to keep their budgets balanced. This year state colleges and universities are receiving about $740 million in state support but raise more than $2 billion in tuition revenue.

Higher education experts don’t believe the state can restrain tuition growth merely through cost savings at colleges and universities.

Colorado colleges have less revenue per student than institutions in most other states and “are already far more efficient than comparable public institutions” in other states, according to a cost study done for the department this summer.

That study, done by the Boulder-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, also noted “the share of the [higher education] budget devoted to expenditures for items other than compensation has declined substantially.”

A 2014 law requires the commission to deliver a proposed new tuition policy to the legislative Joint Budget Committee by Nov. 1. DHE staff members are continuing to work on the draft policy and will gather feedback from college and university leaders and others. The commission is expected to vote on a final version at its Oct. 29 meeting.

Tuition as a political issue

Tuition increases in recent years put pressure on student and family budgets and also came at a time when the state was trying to increase enrollment of low-income and first-generation students, for whom college costs can be a significant barrier.

Rising tuition rates sparked concern among legislators, including some who tried to make college affordability a 2014 election issue.

During the 2014 session, lawmakers increased funding for higher education by 11 percent and also set the 6 percent cap on tuition increases for resident undergraduate students.

Tuition increases have moderated a bit recently. The median percent increase in tuition was 5 percent for 2014-15, the lowest since 2006-07, when it was 2.5 percent.

Proposal echoes prior tuition flexibility law

As state funding shrank after the 2008 recessions, lawmakers threw colleges a lifeline with a 2010 law that gave institutions greater power over tuition than they had in the past.

That law set a 9 percent cap for five years but allowed the commission to approve larger increases if institutions provided detailed rationales for why they needed more money.

Most state colleges took advantage of that flexibility, and double-digit rate increases were imposed by some colleges. The legislative repealed that flexibility law in 2014.

In contrast to the 2010 law, the new proposal would be more integrated into the annual budget setting process for higher education, and the new plan would set different requirements for colleges that want to exceed the annual cap.

Commission doesn’t have the final word

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who also heads DHE, reminded commissioners that they won’t have the final say on tuition, regardless of what new plan is adopted.

“What we would be adding here is a recommendation about tuition increases,” he said. “The General Assembly could elect to do something different.”

Commissioner Jeanette Garcia, an educator from Pueblo, said, “My hope is that the General Assembly starts recognizing that this body and the department are the right people to be making these decisions.”

Commissioner Paula Sandoval of Denver, a former state senator, noted, “We have to convince 35 senators and all of the representatives that what we’re doing is valid and sound.”

Bigger budget problems could derail any formula

The lieutenant governor also stressed that a tight state budget could make a new tuition policy meaningless if lawmakers have to cut support of higher education.

He referred specifically to the hospital provider fee, income that doesn’t come from taxes but which still counts against the annual state revenue limit required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. An attempt to reclassify the fee so it doesn’t count against the limit failed during the last legislative session, but the Hickenlooper administration plans to try again in 2016.

“If the hospital provider fee isn’t converted … there’s no chance there will an increase for higher education, and probably a decrease” in 2016-17, Garcia said. “And we’ll see tuition go up.”

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.