CSU pledges access for poor, middle-class students on heels of "tuition flexibility" push

Colorado State University officials and Governor Bill Ritter announced a sweeping plan today to ensure higher education for lower and middle class students threatened with hefty student loans and skyrocketing tuition.

The tuition break plan, dubbed "Commitment to Colorado," promises to cut tuition in half for Colorado residents whose families make $57,000 or less and to provide a free education for low-income students who are eligible for federal Pell grants starting in fall 2011.

CSU's pledge packs some real punch for Colorado students who currently fall between the cracks of the higher education system, but many questions -- including specifics about how the school plans to fund the program -- remain unclear.

"It's our opportunity to step up and address this issue directly," Joe Blake, chancellor of the CSU system, said of the higher education "funding cliff" approaching as schools reliant on state dollars see increases in tuition as the only survival tactic.

Looming tuition hikes for state residents, under the Fort Collins campus' plan, will be cut by $2,600 for cash-strapped families who, because of the federal government's complicated specifications for financial aid, are denied grants and therefore leave school with even more debt that those from lower-income families.

CSU projects that roughly 3,700 students, or 21 percent of undergraduates, will qualify for free or half price tuition by fall 2011. That projection is in addition to any other scholarships, loans or work study for which students may qualify.

"This makes a difference in the lives of so many people," Ritter, a CSU alumnus, said in the capitol's west foyer.

CSU's Pueblo hub, charged with educating a larger number of poor and minority students, will launch a similar plan unique to its operation. Click here to see that plan.

The announcement of the financial aid overhaul comes in the wake of a law Ritter signed last week to allow state universities and colleges to dictate their own tuition rates -- a divisive measure that some argue puts too much trust in the hands of ambitious administrators hoping to beef up the financial guts of the schools at students' expense.

But Tony Frank, president of CSU's main hub in Fort Collins, said today the tuition breaks strike a balance between the drastic tuition increases that are needed to fill budget gaps left by dwindling state funds and the mission of access for students to the school.

"CSU is a land grant institution," he said. "It is born of Lincoln's dream that every American with the will has the opportunity for an education ...CSU's commitment to Colorado is simple: We're doing this because Colorado needs the educations CSU provides."

"We're doing it because, in America, we all chip in," Frank added.

Frank's reference to Colorado's need for an educated workforce hints to what some call the "Colorado Paradox" -- the state's unique predicament of being one of the most educated states and at the same time among the worst in bolstering higher education.

Lauding the plan as "a 21st Century version of Lincoln's idea," Frank said it's a solution to the state's "riddle of higher education." But just how the school plans to fund the program is, so far, a riddle of its own.

To sustain the tuition cuts, Frank cited cutting $30 million in costs from the state's $130 allotment to the school, several "under-utilized resources" -- of which he couldn't name any -- and a multi-year campaign to shore up donor support and scholarship funds.

But Frank conceded that students not covered by CSU's new plan -- those from wealthy families or from out of state -- will likely pick up the slack. "Non-resident tuition will also likely go up," he said, but "not so high that we drop our enrollment."

The university doesn't plan to raise tuition this fall beyond the previously state-approved 9 percent, Frank said.

Ritter heralded the plan as a long-awaited reprieve for struggling Colorado families with eyes on higher education. Referring to the giant "A" overlooking what was once Colorado Agricultural College before the Fort Collins campus became CSU, Ritter said: "I think today that 'A' takes on two different meanings. Affordability and Accessibility."

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J. David McSwane
Contact: J. David McSwane