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By SusanC.Thomson
Denver, Colorado
sk your typical Colorado public college or university
students about the vouchers that are supposedly helping
thempay for their education, and their brows furrow in
puzzlement. Ask themabout their stipends, and some of them
show glimmers of awareness. But mention College Opportunity
Fund, andmost of their faces brighten in recognition.
COF (pronounced “cough”), Colorado’s roundabout way of
funding higher education, now in its second year, has caught
students’ attention, seeped into their vernacular and become
part of their routine.
Vouchers, stipends and COF are three different terms used
to describe this payment system, the first—and so far only—
one of its kind in the nation. All three terms are imprecise, the
first two erroneously suggesting something valuable, portable
and negotiable, like checks, the latter open to themistaken
interpretation that students are receiving cash they did not get
before. Truth is, rather than getting anything extra, students
havemerely become conduits for some of themoney the state
used to send straight to its community college systemand its
public four-year colleges and universities.
The Colorado Commission onHigher Education, however,
persists in implying some sort of state benevolence, referring
on one of its websites to “taxpayer-funded” instruments that
students “bring with them” to college. Another Commission
website goes so far as to proclaimprominently: “In-state
undergraduates:The State of Colorado is investing in your
education. Money has been put aside for your tuition. Apply
now to receive this new benefit.”
Online and in presentations at the state’s secondary schools,
the Commission is marketing the College Opportunity Fund,
encouraging students as young as eighth graders to sign up. As
of late last year, 350,000 had done so, according to Jenna Langer,
the commission’s interimexecutive at the time.
Nicole Ebsen got themessage and put her name on the
line two years ago when she was a junior at GreeleyWest
High School. Now a freshman at the University of Northern
Colorado, inGreeley, she is among those who perceive that the
COF is saving her money. “I can see it online when I paymy
bill,” she said. “It shows a total, and it shows a credit for the COF
Given the complexities and the confusion about its name,
it is little wonder that most students profess not to understand
the COF entirely. Most can at least tell you, though, that it adds
up tomaybe $1,000 or so, and that—at the click of a computer
mouse—they can electronically deduct from their bills when
they register for a semester of classes. Hey, it’s “freemoney,”
some say gleefully.
Hee YeonDay, a sophomore at Colorado State University,
is among theminority of pooh-poohers. “Some people think
Winter 2007
Is it a Shell Game?
Colorado’s controversial new way of handing out its higher education money
they’re getting extra
money from the state but
they’re not,” she said.
Few students can
elaborate the point
better than Aaron “Jack”
Wiley. As a political
science major and
president of the Student
Government Assembly
at Metropolitan State
College of Denver, he
has studied the political
process that brought this
new funding wrinkle
about. It’s “a gimmick,”
he said, just a way to
get around Colorado’s
budget limits and
keep the state’s higher
education system afloat.
In other words, it’s just somuch budgetary sleight of
hand. And this is not merely students’ chronic, sometimes
uninformed, skepticism talking. Others withmore detached
perspectives describe this whole thing in evenmore negative
• “Amoney laundry.”That’s what John Straayer, a professor
of political science at Colorado State University calls it.
• “A different way of packaging and distributing the
money…an elaborate process to do things the same way by
calling it something different.”That summation comes from
FrankWaterous, senior policy analyst for
education at the Bell Policy Center, a Denver
• “A huge shell game.”That’s the considered
opinion of Spiros Protopsaltis, Waterous’
predecessor at the Bell Center and now
a doctoral candidate at the University of
Colorado’s School of Public Affairs inDenver,
who is writing his dissertation on howColorado
came to this newway of handing out its higher
The story begins in 1992, when state voters
passed the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR),
an amendment to the state constitution that
limited the annual growth of state spending
to the increase in the Consumer Price Index,
adjusted for state population change. By 2001-02, considering
its population and per-capita income, Colorado had dropped
into the bottom ten states in its financing effort for public
colleges and universities in the annual rankings of the Center
Frank Waterous, of the Bell Policy Center, in Denver,
thinks the new higher education funding plan is simply
budgetary sleight-of-hand.
Colorado’s “College
Fund,” according
to Colorado State
University political
science professor
John Straayer, is “a
money laundry.”
Eric Lars Bakke, Black Star, for CrossTalk