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Colo. shifts college funding

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is the second in a series of five that explores Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal to change the way higher education is funded. Monday’s article outlined Pawlenty’s plan, and Wednesday’s article will look at how the plan wi

Beginning this fall, Colorado will have a new method for funding higher education, using a program Minnesota might soon emulate.

The College Opportunity Fund will take effect in Colorado for the 2005-06 school year.

The fund is a voucher program, the first such plan aimed at giving funds to college students. Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in his State of the State address in January that he might want to start a similar fund, though he has recently backed off that statement.

Under the new program, Colorado institutions will directly receive only one-third of their previous state funding. The rest of the money will go to students, who will each receive as much as $2,400 per academic year.

The funds can be used at any of the state’s public colleges and universities or at three private schools: the University of Denver, Colorado College or Regis University.

Students can receive aid for up to 145 credit hours.

However, students will not receive the funds directly. Instead, their money will be forwarded to the school in which they are enrolled.

According to the plan, any tuition hikes because of reallocated funds would be offset by the students’ vouchers, officials said, which means students will be paying the same amount to go to school.

To receive the funds, students must apply for them. There is currently an extensive publicity campaign in Colorado to inform potential applicants of the new program, officials said.

Jason Hopfer, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education director of communications, said there were several motives for passing the law.

“One of the reasons was to tie the subsidy to the student in the student’s mind,” he said.

Hopfer said legislators felt students could place more pressure on the Legislature than the colleges could.

Now, if the Legislature tries to cut higher education funding, it has to deal directly with the students rather than the institutions, he said.

Another important factor in the state’s decision was Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Under the bill, Colorado’s taxes are tied to inflation and population growth. Tax rates cannot be increased without a public referendum.

Any excess revenues are refunded to taxpayers.

Colorado’s public commodities must draw their funding from a limited pot. This puts severe restrictions on spending for such services as health care, transportation and education.

“One of the realities in changing the funding is so funding isn’t tied to budget growth,” Hopfer said.

“Under the new program, higher education funding won’t count against the spending limits.”

Dissenting voices

But not all people are happy about the change.

Joseph Neguse, a tri-executive of the Colorado Student Union, the student governing body of the University of Colorado at Boulder, expressed displeasure with the state’s decision.

“I think it’s a moot point, unless you provide more funding,” he said.

Neguse said he worries students receiving vouchers to pay for private schools will take money from the public colleges, leaving the state’s university system underfunded.

He said the fund only improves things “on an aesthetic level.”

“You’re creating a pretty costly bureaucratic system,” he said. “Students are going to be shocked by their bill when August rolls around and they have another $2,400 on it.”

Neguse said he is worried some students will be left in the cold.

“A lot of students don’t know about it,” he said. “They now have to apply for (their money).

“The state of higher education in Colorado is pretty fragile. There are bigger issues to tackle, like how can we get more funding to the institutions?”

Ryan Brazell, an integrative physiology junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he was surprised to learn of the new law.

“I didn’t even know those were available,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything about it on (National Public Radio) or in the paper.”

Justin Fish, an integrative physiology junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who is from Brooklyn Park, Minn., said he worries already strapped students are going to have even more problems affording college.

“A lot of kids are paying on their own to go here,” he said. “The last thing we need is another tuition hike.

“It seems pretty outrageous to me.”

A supportive institution

Despite concerns from the student body, officials at the University of Colorado at Boulder said they are happy about the new law.

Contrasting with University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks’ negative response to Pawlenty’s proposal, Elizabeth Hoffman, the University of Colorado at Boulder president, has spoken out multiple times in favor of the program.

Lou McClelland, University of Colorado at Boulder director of Institutional Analysis, said, “The president was for it, but the reasons for being for it in Colorado are unique to Colorado.”

The new law gives institutions of higher education what it calls “enterprise status.” Enterprise status is the only way around the bill’s spending limits.

“We view (the fund) as essentially a bookkeeping measure to pretend we’re not adding to the state’s budget,” she said.

Before the fund, any additional funding to the university system required money to be taken away from other government programs, she said. With the vouchers, that’s no longer an issue.

McClelland said the schools won’t be seeing more money because of the fund, and other programs will not need to be starved to feed the state university system.

But McClelland said she still has issues with Colorado’s higher education policies.

“Most of our revenue is from tuition – we hardly get any from the state,” she said. “They still don’t want to give us authority to raise tuition to the level we want.”

McClelland said she doesn’t expect students to be unaware of the funding change.

“There’s publicity stuff all over the place, and we now have a list of the students who haven’t applied,” she said. “We will be after them with e-mail.”

Further concerns

Colorado state Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, the fund’s leading opponent, said he still has his concerns.

“The idea of notifying or trying to empower each and every student in the state is a good idea,” said Tupa, who is the majority caucus chairman and senior member of the Senate Education Committee.

But he said he felt the state could have notified students about the already existing state subsidy.

“(The fund) is going to cost millions of dollars to advertise and operate,” he said.

But Tupa said his main concern is with the legality of the new law.

“It’s kind of a complicated money-laundering scheme,” he said. “I don’t think it’s constitutional.”

Tupa said there is no way to know yet how well the program will work, legal or not. Colorado has no other system to compare its new system to.

“No other state in the country funds college this way,” Tupa said.

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