By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
The president of the Colorado Community College System says “everything is on the table” as higher education braces for yet more painful cuts.
Gov. Bill Ritter last week announced intentions for an additional $145 million in cuts to higher education as officials attempt to close another shortfall — this time for $271 million. The $145 million comes on top of $80.9 million already slashed from the higher education budget back in August. At the time, officials were attempting to close a $318 million shortfall.
Dr. Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, said teachers, administrators and programs might be cut as a result. She added that tuition might increase for students, at a time when community colleges in Colorado are looking at a 19 percent growth in enrollment.
“This cuts deeper for us than it does for other places that are not growing as strong as we are,” said McCallin.
Colorado ranks 48th in the nation in per capita spending for higher education, according to the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.
Anticipating the need to take draconian measures concerning funding for next year, community colleges have already begun making cuts to positions, keeping positions vacant, closing low-enrollment programs and deferring capital expenditures, said McCallin.
Things are already bad for next year’s budget, but what’s most concerning to community college officials is that they just don’t know how bad things are going to get for the 2011-2012 budget.
The cuts to higher education will be backfilled by stimulus dollars, but cuts to next year means a net reduction that could come back to haunt community college officials in 2011-2012. Stimulus dollars are dwindling, and the state is already requesting another waiver from the federal government to cut higher-education funding without losing more than $760 million in stimulus dollars. Because the state would dip below $555 million in funding for higher education — which is where the state was in 2006 — Colorado is technically ineligible for the $760 million in stimulus dollars.
While unlikely if not impossible, McCallin is actually hoping the waiver will be rejected, because then state officials would be unable to cut funding below the 2006 level.
Assuming, however, that the waiver will be approved, the community college system is preparing for a tough 2010-2011, and an even tougher 2011-2012 when stimulus dollars have been completely exhausted.
“I think that everything is on the table as we plan for the future,” said McCallin. “The state budget is continuing to spiral downward and we need to be analyzing every part of what we do.”
Students appear to be concerned most with the prospect of sharp tuition increases.
“If my tuition goes up I have no idea how I could pay for school,” said Ryan Carson, a Community College of Denver student. “I already live off Ramen noodles.”
Back in April, Carson joined fellow students for a rally on the 16th Street Mall during which the students panhandled to send a message to lawmakers that they would be desperate if severe cuts to higher education are made.
At the time, lawmakers were considering an additional $300 million in cuts to higher education. But they reconsidered and came up with the money elsewhere. That was before two additional shortages.
Higher education is always a popular cut for lawmakers because of constitutional spending mandates for most other departments. Because higher education is not protected by such mandates, it is a frequent target.
McCallin and others have considered asking voters for a spending mandate, but the political climate has never been conducive to such an initiative. A voter-approved initiative last year allowed an increase in betting and hours at Colorado casinos in order to provide an estimated annual revenue increase of $7 million to $10 million per year for community colleges. But community college officials would rater the additional money be used to supplement state funding, not replace it.
“There’s a level of anxiety out there — for everyone in higher ed,” said McCallin.
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters