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By Pamela Burdman
Denver, Colorado
A
s colleges and universities around the
country find themselves facing the budget noose,
policymakers in Colorado have devised a voucher-like
proposal that they hope will give the state’s institutions of
higher education a new lease on life.
The first of its kind in the country, the plan would turn the
traditional form of state appropriations on its head, routing
state subsidies for education directly to students, instead
of institutions. As envisioned by the panel that hatched the
idea, the higher education commission that refined it, and
the legislators who are seeking to enact it into law, the new
funding mechanismwould have a dual effect: enticing more
low-income students to attend college while allowing four-
year universities the tuition increases they say they badly need.
The plan is designed to address the peculiarities of
Colorado’s fiscal landscape—namely by liberating schools
from constitutional limits on revenue increases. Since 1993,
state government has operated under the Colorado Taxpayer’s
Bill of Rights, or TABOR amendment, which strictly limits
increases in state revenue, including tuition. By placing a
large chunk of institutions’ traditional revenue in students’
hands, the plan would reduce schools’ revenue below the
ceiling required for exemption fromTABOR—a key reason
the state’s two research universities favor the proposal. But
since distributing dollars to students could help keep higher
education funding on the public’s agenda, the notion is
drawing interest from policymakers in other states as well.
“This is the boldest plan I’ve seen,” said David
Longanecker, executive director of the Boulder-basedWestern
Interstate Commission for Higher Education. “This could be
the way to secure the long-term future for higher education in
Colorado. I think a lot of states will pay attention.”
Longanecker, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education
and former director of Colorado’s Commission on Higher
Education, believes that in addition to its fiscal environment,
Colorado’s conservative political climate and traditionally low
public support for higher education make it an ideal candidate
for this sort of experiment.
But the legislation’s destiny remained yoked to higher
education’s budget fortunes, which were in considerable
doubt. After slashing higher education spending from $686
to $602 million in the current year, legislators were seeking
to trim another $100 million for 2003-04 as budget talks got
serious in late March. Against that grim fiscal backdrop, the
plan seemed as risky as it seemed urgent.
“The state of higher education is going to be extremely
difficult if we pass this legislation,” said Peggy Lamm, a former
Democratic legislator who chairs the Colorado Commission
on Higher Education. “But if we don’t pass it, it will be much
Spring 2003
Colorado’s “Grand Experiment”
Voucher program could give the state’s colleges a new lease on life
worse. We are way past the fat. We’re into the sinew and
getting to the muscles and bones.”
Though the concept of college vouchers sounds brand
new, it actually has a history in Colorado. In the late 1970s,
conservative legislators kicked around the idea as a way of
making a case for a K–12 plan. And back in 1996, when
several states were looking at
the voucher idea, the Colorado
House of Representatives
considered a higher education
voucher bill, which would have
made the grants available to
students at both public and
private colleges. Partly because
it could have drained funding
away from state institutions,
that proposal did not attract
broad support.
But the current bill has
more momentum—and
muscle—behind it. It was the
brainchild of a panel convened
in 2001 by Republican Governor Bill Owens. The Blue Ribbon
Panel on Higher Education for the 21st Century was charged
to look at the funding mechanism for higher education and
consider ways of increasing college participation. The 17-
member panel was headed by former CCHE chairman Bruce
Benson, an influential oil and gas executive whose current
Businessman Bruce Benson chaired the blue ribbon panel that has proposed
Colorado’s higher education voucher plan.
As the legislation was
drafted, the term “vouchers”
morphed to “student
educational savings
accounts,” then “college
opportunity grants” and,
finally, “college opportunity
savings accounts.”
Photos by Eric Lars Bakke, Black Star, for CrossTalk