Josh Penry-John Morse idea to give university boards more leeway potentially dangerous

Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, are brainstorming ways to keep Colorado's colleges from suffocating amid crippling losses in revenue from the state. Atop the mount of potential solutions, the bipartisan duo says: Let the schools raise tuition as they see fit.

"We are trying to figure out how do we give the higher education system flexibility that will allow them to survive the budget cuts that are inevitably coming in the next two or three years?" said Morse, a graduate of a public Colorado college when tuition was a faction of what it is now, in a Denver Post interview.

But such talk concerns John Straayer, a longtime Colorado State University professor who specializes in state legislatures. "It makes me very uneasy -- to cut the boards loose," he says. "The boards might want to have the institutions raise tuition significantly. That might be their only solution... There's enough of a history of governing boards to make you nervous."

Indeed, what Morse and the rest of the legislature (about three quarters of which benefited from state public higher education) are really saying is: "Students and their parents are the the benefactors of public higher education, and they're gonna have to pay up big time because the state dropped the ball."

When you take out the politic-speak, this statement sounds a bit evil, but it's also realistic, and perhaps Penry and Morse deserve some credit for at least taking the time to think about the problem. Still, a little context as to how schools like the Univeristy of Colorado and Colorado State University got their fiscal giblets so close to the bandsaw might have some legislators feigning an interest in a real solution -- not just another blow to the crippled middle class.

In desperate times, greater "flexibility" for school boards sounds like a no-brainer, but giving the governing boards of these schools too much freedom makes for a slippery slope. Essentially, "flexibility" means a university president or board could hike tuition drastically on a whim and place a college education even further beyond the reach of the average people who typically benefit from state college. (Some have tried in the past but failed thanks to state oversight -- check this 2007 Denver Post article about a sneaky attempt to hike tuition by former CSU president Larry Penley.)

Straayer, who's analyzed higher education funding since before the recession and literally wrote the book on Colorado politics (it's called The Colorado General Assembly), says he understands the motivation to allow colleges to hike tuition dramatically, especially now. Anything short of a miracle at the Capitol leaves tuition increases as the only real move for school administrators.

"I'm just frustrated by the whole predicament," Straayer concedes. "We've been moving the cost from the state to the students for years now. You're supposed to be able to come out of school and buy a house and start a family. Where's that gone?

"These folks [the legislature] have enjoyed the good life partly because of a higher education system that was paid for by other people," he adds. "It's the management of previous generations that paid off for us. So what's our position now? 'Screw you?' 'Let the next generation pay for it?'"

For better or worse, the notion that tuition dollars can fuel academe while money flow stagnates at the Capitol seems almost reasonable -- unless, of course, those schools were already sinking as a result of Colorado's cut-off-at-the-knees higher education funding scheme.

As Straayer puts it, "Just an end to the recession isn't going to solve the problem." And neither will higher tuition rates, which drive away students -- especially poor, traditionally minority students already handicapped by the widening gap between college entrance requirements and Colorado high school performances.

Consider for a moment that, for the better part of a decade, Colorado's top universities have been flirting with the idea of a mostly privatized funding model -- one that runs to a large degree on the generosity of alumni, federal grants and for the liberal arts sectors which attract less of both, concentrated pixie dust. How did it come to be that public universities -- and let's stress the word public -- were so cash-strapped that they had to start thinking in the same vein as private schools like Harvard or, for an in-state example, the University of Denver?

The answer: Colorado stopped caring. And whose fault is that? Yours.

No one came out said, "Kill the colleges!" No. It was a gradual process that kicked off all the way back in 1982 (five years before this reporter came to be), when voters passed the Gallagher Amendment, which imposed a cap on mill levies and tax property increases amid a booming housing market -- a very popular idea at the time.

Then in 1992, Douglas Bruce, a conservative El Paso County resident and eventual scourge of the state legislature, wowed voters with the Tax Payers Bill of Rights (TABOR), which in good economic times broadly kept the state government from increasing taxes, and in tough economic times (like the two subsequent recessions) strangled the legislature's ability to support state enterprises -- like, say, its roads, public schools and, yes, its public land-grant universities. Click here to see an excellent analysis of this issue.

Now, it takes a ballot initiative for increased taxes to fill the bank in the short term -- think back to referendum C in 2005 -- or, more radically, a constitutional re-write to solve the problem in the long run. To be realistic, voters aren't usually keen to vote on raising their own taxes, even if it's for the kids.

And the rest is history -- or maybe just a blog.

This series of seemingly good ideas, however steeped in myopic political ambition, eventually caused the malnourishment of the state's education building blocks. While it is no one person's, or even one party's, doing, Coloradans left higher education to the dogs long ago. And the best our leaders can come up with is more of the same -- although this time it's called "flexibility."

Then there's always the bright idea that maybe Colorado's schools should just become private institutions, which would all but exterminate community colleges and leave the bigger schools looking like slimmer versions of what they were fifty years ago.

To proponents of this idea, Staayer says: "It make you wonder if they've experimented with a calculator."

With any luck, maybe their kids will have the chance to experiment with a calculator of their own. Until then, Coloradans are stuck somewhere between a dead-end job and a massive amount of college debt.

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J. David McSwane
Contact: J. David McSwane