“We’re doing a great job, we’re very efficient and, by the way, please don’t cut our budgets.”
That was the basic message distilled from a day’s worth of testimony Tuesday to the legislative Joint Budget Committee by leaders of the state’s colleges and universities.
Beyond that, college presidents were eager to tout their completion rates, growing enrollments of first-generation and minority students, increased cooperation with neighboring colleges and school districts, growing use of online instruction and their big economic impacts on their regions and the state.
All that was packed into the daylong annual hearing that the JBC devotes to the state’s higher education budget. It’s become an occasion for the leaders of individual colleges to show their faces to six of the legislature’s most powerful members and tout the strengths and unique features of their individual campuses. (Lots of other legislators, including several with colleges in their districts, dropped in and out of the hearing.)
While the tone of the presentations was generally upbeat, the longstanding financial challenges facing higher education hung over the meeting, and one president used her time at the microphone to talk about just that.
University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton didn’t recite encouraging statistics about the university, tout new programs or introduce students to tell their personal stories.
She talked about money, or the lack thereof.
“Over the last 20 years or so we have seen a decrease in the percentage of the state budget that has been devoted to higher education.” Referring to comparative statistics from other states, Norton said, “We are number one in something – disinvestment in higher education” as measured by spending relative to state personal income.
“For a generation or maybe more than that we have been a low state support, low tuition and low financial aid state. … We have gotten away with it because of the mountains.”
Norton continued, “We are much more reliant on tuition than we used to be … as we have really been unable to rely on the state.
“You have to understand that the source of our revenue [now] is students. … That is a permanent change that we see happening. Although we aren’t necessarily thrilled by it, that is the reality of the world in which we operate.”
Although Norton was the only campus leader to focus her remarks on the financial situation, some other presidents touched on the issue.
Mesa State President Tim Foster said that higher ed funding really has been declining for 40 years, and “We knew that all we needed was a good recession to accelerate the defunding of higher education.”
Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado System, warned, “Further cuts will hurt higher education and have a devastating effect on the Colorado economy.” (Benson, always well armed with upbeat CU statistics and facts, held forth with a rapid-fire presentation that lasted about half an hour.)
Joe Blake, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, said, “Colorado ultimately has to decide what kind of future higher education system it wants.”
The discussion didn’t get into a lot of financial specifics, although there was some back and forth on the 2011-12 institutional allocations that have been approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. (See this story for background.)
Higher education Director Rico Munn urged the committee to accept the proposal, saying, “This should be only a temporary allocation … until we can realize what the new normal is.”
Most presidents said they support the plan as a least-bad option, but Nancy McCallin, president of the Community College System, said, “I would respectfully disagree that the funding formula is OK.” She said the proposed formula penalizes fast-growing schools and is “very detrimental to our ability to sustain our institutions.”
Committee members got into the weeds on only one issue – whether Mesa State violated the legislature’s 2010-11 9 percent tuition increase ceiling by raising tuition for freshman 16 percent while keeping overall increases under the ceiling.
Denver Democrats Sen. Pat Steadman and Mark Ferrandino said they think Mesa was in the wrong, but Foster said, “We simply believe we complied with the footnote” that specified the ceiling.
(Asked about the issue earlier in the meeting, Munn said, “President Foster is very creative in how he runs Mesa State.”)
Who’s No. 1?
Committee members and others who sat through the daylong hearing might justifiably have been confused by the overlapping claims various presidents made about their institutions in presentations studded with terms like “fastest growing.” “record,” “only institution of its kind,” “largest,” “finest” and the like.
Consider this comments about online programs:
- “The only institution of its type in the entire nation.” – President Becky Takeda-Tinker of CSU Global Campus
- “We’re probably the leader in that.” – CU’s Benson
- “We didn’t give it a fancy name like Mesa State Global, but nevertheless it serves Western Colorado very well.” – Mesa’s Foster
- “We have the largest online enrollment in the state” – McCallin of the community colleges
Quotable, or at least amusing
- “Following CU is like following the proverbial elephant at the circus.” – Foster, who spoke after Benson
- Responding to a question about privatizing CU, “To really change it you probably need a scandal, and I’m going to do my damndest to prevent that.” – Benson
- “I came to Colorado … for a real sense of adventure in the wild, wild west.” – new Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas, originally from Minnesota
- “Our institutions of higher education are the horses that will help pull our economy out of the ditch it is in.” – Kyle Hybl, chair of the CU Regents
- “Does the Troy Tulowitski contract make you lay awake at night?” – Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, to UNC trustee chair (and Colorado Rockies owner) Dick Monfort
- “Absolutely.” – Monfort
Questions & Answers
The JBC prepares questions for college leaders ahead of time, and the answers are compiled into a briefing paper. Read it here.