Talk about awkward timing. There's no direct connection, monetary or otherwise, between CU-Boulder's proposal for an 8.7 percent tuition hike next year and a plan for a $170 million upgrade to the university's sports facilities; see graphics and more below. But a CU spokesman concedes that the school is already battling perceptions about its priorities based on an assumed link between the two.
"We've seen it on social media," says CU's Bronson Hilliard (disclosure: a longtime friend of yours truly), "and we've seen it on the alumni Facebook page. So we've been trying to explain to folks that their tuition is not going for athletic upgrades."
True enough. As reported by the Boulder Daily Camera, the tuition bump -- officially 3.4 percent, but an increase in the number of hours each student pays for brings it to an effective 8.7 percent -- is considerably more modest than the 15.7 percent boost officials suggested last year at this time. (After a public uproar about putting the cost of college out of reach for the average student during a time of economic upheaval, they wound up settling for 5 percent.) Moreover, the amount is in line with tuition increases for recent years, as seen in this Camera mini-chart:
2011-12: 9.3 percent
2010-11: 8.9 percent
2009-10: 8.8 percent
2008-09: 9.3 percent
As for the sports-facilities upgrade, CU-Boulder types stress that funding will not draw upon tuition dollars, student fees or state bucks. Indeed, construction won't start until donors pony up $50 million in seed money -- that's a mighty big seed -- with the remainder of the needed dough to come from private fundraising and assorted athletic department and media revenues. And besides, Hilliard says, the $170 million price tag is considerably less than what other Pac-12 schools are looking at spending to spiff up their athletic facilities.
"This is a pretty modest proposal when you look at what some of them are doing," he notes; chancellor Philip DiStefano maintains that figures of $200 to $300 million are in play elsewhere. Moreover, Hilliard continues, "we've erected more than $700 million in construction related to the academic and student life missions over the last decade. So the spending priorities have been overwhelmingly in favor of academics and student life," including the completion of a new community dining facility.
The largest athletic projects over the past quarter-century or so include a 1991 expansion of CU's Dal Ward Center and new suites at Folsom Field in 2001. A practice gym for basketball and volleyball was built a couple of years ago, but Hilliard says the money to erect it came entirely from "gifts."
Thanks to the proximity of the announcements pertaining to tuition and the athletic facilities, however, these distinctions aren't always getting through.
"A lot of people think that no matter what happens at the university, it's paid for by tuition," Hilliard concedes, "and that's simply not true. We don't build buildings with tuition; we never have. And the athletic upgrade will come from auxiliary funds, which are any self-earning entity at the university: parking, housing and dining fees, revenue athletics earns from gate receipts, merchandise sales, ticket sales, broadcasting contracts."
Could the university have prevented this sort of linkage by making the announcements at different times, rather than back-to-back? "There really isn't any way to do that," Hilliard says. "There are so many things at the university involving costs that are on time schedules. The regents have their calendar for discussing tuition; they've got to discuss it with enough leeway and enough time to set it. They start that discussion in February and set the tuition usually in the springtime, sometime between February and April, so that young people who are accepted at the university and are going to enroll the following fall know how much they're going to pay. And that calendar is completely separate from the Boulder campus calendar of announcements. We always planned to make the upgrade announcement early in the new semester -- we thought January or February. So the timing issue couldn't be avoided...no way to create a clear separation in people's minds."
For that reason, expect a considerable number of students -- including those enrolled at the College of Arts & Sciences, who will pay around $704 more per year to attend CU-Boulder if the tuition plan wins approval -- to complain about the sporting expenditure. CU president Bruce Benson makes a valid point when he says "intercollegiate athletics is the front porch of the university," and there's no doubt the student body was humiliated by the awful performance of the CU Buffs football team this past year. But that won't make this week's pair of announcements any easier to process for budget-conscious enrollees or parents (another disclosure: My two daughters currently attend CU).
That's no surprise to Hilliard. "Communicating about the university's finances is one of the biggest public-relations challenges we face," he says. "The financing is complicated and not widely understood -- and because less than 5 percent of our budget comes from the state, that forces us to be very entrepreneurial and private-fundraising-oriented. We have to leverage the dollars we get to the maximum to get things done.
"And that's a very complicated story to tell."
Here are images from presentation about the athletic-facilities upgrade:
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