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Administration

Proposed cuts create opportunity

April 6, 2009

Faced with a menu of unacceptable choices, the Colorado General Assembly's Joint Budget Committee this week proposed more than $400 million in cuts to Colorado public higher education - potentially backfilled by one-time funding sources - in an effort to deal with the state's escalating financial crisis.

By Tony Frank, Interim President
 

Difficult to survive proposed cuts

What does a $400 million cut to higher education look like? Quite simply, it would mean fewer choices and increased costs for Colorado families. Our now diverse system of state schools could not withstand such cuts without becoming significantly more expensive, and some schools within Colorado would likely find it difficult to survive.

Even if the state pursues the questionable public policy of dramatically increasing tuition, cuts of the magnitude proposed would simply create a short-term tuition burden too great for most students to bear. The effect would be devastating, essentially creating the first privatized system of public higher education in the history of the United States.

Much of the news this week has focused on one-time solutions that might allow the state to temporarily backfill the proposed cuts. Unfortunately, unless the state economy turns around before the temporary backfill is expended, Colorado higher education will have to deal with this same problem a few years down the road.

Opportunity to examine priorities, explore innovative solutions

Yet, even with all this, I believe there is reason to remain optimistic about the future of higher education in Colorado. Crises often lead us to examine our priorities and explore innovative solutions. Colorado now has an opportunity to recreate the stable platform of funding that has underpinned American public higher education since its inception. This platform is composed of three essential components: cost containment, reasonable tuition and broad access to educational opportunity made possible through sustainable state support.

After all, state legislators aren't proposing such draconian cuts because they feel higher education hasn't done its job. Our governor, legislators and business leaders clearly understand the importance of a healthy, diverse system of public higher education, both socially and economically. Consider that CSU and its alumni alone account for more than $4.1 billion in state household income every year, and annual student spending in Fort Collins is about $168 million. CSU spin-off companies have created more than 500 jobs in Northern Colorado just this year.

Tangle of regulations

Our state leaders understand this, but the tangle of regulations governing our state budget has tied the hands of Colorado leaders, leaving them with little ability to effectively manage state resources for the long term. We, as citizens and voters, created this situation, and we must now become involved in advocating for an effective solution.

The short-term solutions now being discussed at the state level would provide us time to finally launch a public dialogue about how to create a stable stream of funding for higher education. This funding stream must encompass the three elements mentioned above - an equal measure of stable, public support to ensure broad access; reasonable tuition; and cost containment, to ensure accountability to taxpayers and students.

Triangle of opportunity

At the center of such a triangle of opportunity can reside a world-class public education system accessible to anyone with the ability to earn a degree - a system that returns significant benefits back to Colorado, a system in keeping with the American tradition of public education for the public good. But the public good is not well-served by a short term focus that attempts to balance today's budget at the expense of our economic future.

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Originally published in the Coloradoan, April 4, 2009.