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President Al Yates of Colorado State University worries that the
voucher plan will direct most low-income and minority students
into community colleges.
While research institutions in California and Illinois
spend $16,086 and $10,895 per full-time equivalent student
respectively, Hoffman said, Colorado contributes just
$6,156 per FTE student to the University of Colorado’s
four campuses. And at $3,566, Boulder’s tuition and
fees for this year are among the lowest of Association of
American Universities members. “We’re underfunded and
overregulated,” she sighed.
CU has partly made up for Colorado’s frugality by
aggressively—and successfully—pursuing federal research
dollars. Because of the high ratio of research and development
funds, and because it takes in a high proportion of tuition
dollars from out-of-state undergraduates paying $16,000 a
year, Boulder hit the ten percent TABOR cut-off after the
latest round of budget cuts, Hoffman said.
In the last two years, the CU system has seen its enrollment
increase by 3,779 despite a $37 million drop in general fund
support. To sustain cuts of $28.9 million in the current year,
the university eliminated 178 positions, cut four programs,
and shuttered ten academic centers on its four campuses.
Other belt-tightening measures have included unpaid
furloughs for administrative officers.
But CU’s finances are not nearly as vulnerable as the state’s
regional colleges—Adams, Western and Mesa—which are
undergoing a transition from a single governing board to
separate boards. The small rural institutions may be integral
to efforts to enroll more minority and low-income students,
but they will remain reliant on role and mission grants for
the foreseeable future. “If that gets pulled, we probably will
have difficulty adjusting to any fluctuations in the economy,”
said system President Lee Halgren. “Our three institutions
are the institutions of opportunity for their regions of the
state. To raise tuition significantly
for the population we’re serving
is not realistic…unless we have a
subsequent increase in financial
aid.”
Halgren also worries about
enrollment pressure if the
universities use the colleges as a
cushion by dipping below their
admissions standards. Currently
they are allowed to make such
exceptions for up to 20 percent of
their classes, but Halgren insists
that that needs to change. Despite
those risks, Halgren, like other administrators, was intrigued
by the possibility of increasing public ownership of higher
education—the chief reason other states were taking an
interest.
“It makes you have the right set of conversations,” said
Richard Jarvis, chancellor of the Oregon University System.
“It forces you to bring together financial aid, appropriations,
tuition…This is the only way you’re ever going to see anything
that looks like an entitlement.”
Jarvis said the idea of putting money in students’ hands
would resonate with Oregon’s business community. “I’m
trying to seed discussions around here,” he said. “But if it
crashes and burns in Colorado? End of conversation.”
And inWashington, state Senator Don Carlson, a
Republican who chairs the state’s higher education committee
and serves on theWestern Interstate Commission for Higher
Education, has already taken an interest. But he would not
want any limitations concerning the use of vouchers at private
schools. “If you let the student go where they’re going to be
best served, you have to include private facilities in your state,”
said Carlson.
He did not say howWashington would come up with the
money to fund vouchers at private schools, which now receive
little in the way of state support. But he said the plan would
force publics to compete for students or “go out of business.”
He was considering introducing legislation next year to start
with a pilot voucher project at an institution such as Eastern
Washington University, whose president, Stephen Jordan, has
written articles favoring the voucher idea. But, Carlson said,
Washington officials, like those in Oregon, will be keeping
their eyes on Colorado.
“This is going to be one of the grand experiments,” said
Longanecker. “It’s the ultimate test of what the economists
have been saying all along. This wouldn’t be an ideal policy
in an ideal world, but I think it’s pretty good policy for
Colorado.”
u
Independent consultant Pamela Burdman is a former higher
education reporter for the
San Francisco Chronicle
and former
program officer in education at theWilliam and Flora Hewlett
Foundation.
Colorado’s blue ribbon
panel on higher education
made a point of avoiding
the most contentious
aspect of K–12 voucher
plans—the funding of
private institutions.