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New Era Dawns For College Tuition In Colo.

By Todd Engdahl, EDUCATION NEWS COLORADO

The Colorado legislature this year gave up its direct power to control college and university tuition, but the rates students may pay in the next five years indirectly still will be up to lawmakers.

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education Thursday unanimously approved tuition flexibility plans submitted by six higher education institutions and systems. Five of the plans contain “what-if” scenarios that suggest different levels of tuition increases depending on how much state support the 2011 legislature allocates to higher ed.

So the lower state support is, the more tuition may jump.

A law passed by the 2010 legislature allows college boards of trustees to raise tuition up to 9 percent a year for each of the next five years. (Traditionally, the legislature set tuition increase ceilings in the annual state budget bill.) The new law also allows colleges that want higher rates to ask permission from the CCHE. Those are the plans approved by the commission Thursday.

The commission votes don’t set future tuition rates, nor have any colleges and universities made official tuition decisions for 2011-12. The commission merely gave institutions authority to raise tuition more than 9 percent, and individual college boards won’t set actual 2011-12 tuition until next May or June.

“Nobody wants these tuition increases. What we have tried to do is set up a mechanism for colleges to respond if they have to,” said Rick Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education.

Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed $555 million in state support for higher ed in 2011-12, so that’s the base against which colleges have calculated their what-if tuition plans (see this story for background). Of course, that amount may change depending on state revenues, the proposals of the incoming Hickenlooper administration and, ultimately, the decisions of the legislature.

At a previous meeting, the commission approved flexibility plans for the Colorado State University System, Metro State College and Fort Lewis College (see this story for details). The Colorado School of Mines chose not to file an application.

The flexibility law requires colleges to have plans to maintain affordability for low- and middle-income students. While institutions have proposed a wide variety of affordability strategies, a common tactic is to earmark percentages of increased tuition revenue for financial aid and for student counseling and retention programs.

The plans are a sign of the accelerating shift towards state college pricing models that look more like those of private colleges – higher tuition, different tuition rates for different programs depending on cost and student demand and more individually tailored financial aid based on the needs of individual students.

Here are highlights of the flexibility requests approved Thursday:

University of Colorado System – The university won’t raise undergraduate resident tuition more than 9 percent if currently proposed levels of state aid for 2011-12 are approved. At a lower level of state funding, CU would raise tuition up to 9.5 percent. The system did not request permission for increases above 9 percent in budget years 2012-13 through 2015-16.

Community College System – The system won’t raise tuition more than 9 percent if state funding is approved at forecast levels, but it may raise 2011-12 tuition by 15.7 percent if state aid is 10 percent below what has been proposed. Also, depending on state support, the system wants the flexibility to raise tuition between 10.8 and 12.7 percent in 2012-13.

University of Northern Colorado – The university proposes average increases of 15 percent next year (ranging from 8 to 22 percent depending on program and credit hours taken), an average of 12 percent in 2014-15 and of 9 percent in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Adams State College – Tuition could increase 11 percent annually through the five-year period if 2011-12 state support comes in at the forecast levels. If state aid drops by about 10 percent, Adams proposes a 25 percent increase next year, 20 percent in 2012-13, 12 percent in 2013-14 and 9 percent in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Mesa State College – The college proposes keeping overall tuition increases below 9 percent if state funding is as expected. If state funding is more than 10 percent below projected levels, Mesa proposes to increase tuition .49 percent for each percentage that state funding drops. The college doesn’t expect increases of more than 9 percent for 2012-13 through 2015-16.

Western State College – The college is considering raising tuition by 11.6 percent a year during the five-year period if state funding is stable and by 16 percent a year if state funding drops by 10 percent or more.

The new flexibility system applies only to tuition for Colorado residents who are undergraduates. College trustees can set rates as they choose for out-of-state students and for graduate programs.

(See the bottom of this DHE page for links to the full financial plans for each college and system. Go here to read a new DHE detailed new report on tuition rates and fees in the current school year, and see a report on financial aid for Colorado students in 2009-10 here. Also see this table showing the change in tuition and fees from 2009-10 to 2010-11.)

Master plan, or master planning?

Now that a citizens’ committee has taken a year to develop a higher education strategic plan, the commission is going to take another year to decide how to implement it.

The commission Thursday formally adopted the strategic plan recently finished by a citizen committee as part of the CCHE’s new master plan for higher education. DHE staff also proposed that the commission develop more detailed plans to implement the broader goals suggest in the document, titled “The Degree Dividend.”

That sparked discussion among commission members about whether they were adopting a “master plan” or a system of “master planning.” Eventually they agreed to give themselves a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for the additional work.

At any rate, the tuition flexibility law also requires CCHE to submit a plan to the legislature before the 2011 session starts, so “The Degree Dividend” was approved as that document and will be sent along to the Capitol.

Another delay for Westwood

For the second time this fall, the commission delayed a decision on whether to place for-profit Westwood College on “probationary accreditation.” The college has been placed on probation by its accrediting agency, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. The CCHE in October discussed whether to put Westwood on Colorado probation to align with the accrediting body’s action.

No decision was made then because the accrediting commission was to reconsider the Westwood case in November. Staff members told CCHE Thursday that the accrediting commission apparently has made a decision but won’t be announcing it until next week.

So, CCHE again decided to wait to act until after the national body’s decision is known. (See previous story about Westwood and CCHE.)


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