CU may become private, president says
Colorado’s conflicting tax and spending laws are close to forcing higher public education to fend for itself.
University of Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman told members of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau and local members of the board of education that the problems are becoming severe enough that the 35,000 student school is being forced to triple tuition and become a private school. That would increase to more than $12,5000 the cost for Colorado residents to attend the school.
Hoffman is touring the state to drum up support for the university system. She spoke Tuesday afternoon with students at Battle Mountain High School, which has a fair number of its students attend state schools.
“If we don’t do something fundamental to change Colorado’s constitutional amendments there will be no more money left for public higher education,” she said.
The funding problems, she says, stem from provisions of two state laws: the spending limits and refunds mandated in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights; and the mandated spending for elementary and high school education in Amendment 23.
Something’s got to give and Hoffman fears it may eventually be the state university system, which has been receiving a smaller and smaller slice of state funding.
The schools need more money because the student population has been growing while state revenues have declined and budget limitations have been placed on the university system.
At present the state supplies only 9.6 percent of the university’s $1.7 billion budget. That’s down from 25.6 percent in 1990. And during economic down times, when budgets are cut, demand for education increases because people whose jobs disappear often re-enter school for more training. Increasing the degree of difficulty is the fact that the state university system does not have the authority to increase tuition without legislative and gubernatorial approval.
The solution, she said, is to reverse or temporarily suspend some of the provisions of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, also known as TABOR. That’s going to require legislative action and a constitutional amendment and the chances of that being accomplished are far from certain, she said.
“We need to ask taxpayers to give up their TABOR refunds,” Hoffman said. “People do not want to give up their refunds. I want them to understand what they’re getting for their tax refund.”
Another solution, Hoffman said, would be to declare the university system an enterprise, making it immune to TABOR’S effects. It would qualify, but Gov. Bill Owens vetoed a such a measure last year, saying he feared “runaway education.”
If the school did achieve enterprise status by having less than 10 percent of its funding come from state sources, it could increase its tuition enough to keep ahead of the curve, she said.
If not, privatization could be inevitable, she said.
“A lot of people think we should but that would be an awful thing … to abandon its commitment to higher education,” she said. “We would become the only state in the country without publicly-supported higher education. Business understands the importance of that.”
Part of the issue is how inexpensive in-state tuition to the Colorado University system is. It costs an average of just over $4,000 a year now. That makes it one of the most inexpensive systems in the country, Hoffman said.
For the present, the university is on a sound financial footing, Hoffman said. It gets the majority of its funding from endowments, research and development grants and other sources. If the university system does become private Hoffman said it would require a tenfold increase in the amount of endowments it now receives.
Hoffman also lobbied for two pieces of state legislation, Senate Bill 189 and House Bill 1422. She said the bills would help alleviate the impending funding crunch by loosening the financial manacles imposed by TABOR and other taxing and spending bills.
The former would, among other things, create a college opportunity fund that could provide a base level of funding for students attending state schools.
Compounding the situation is the recruiting scandal hitting CU’s football team. That team’s revenue-generating activities create $8.5 million above what it costs to operate, Hoffman said.
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.