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If timing is everything, well, it's been nothing but bad timing lately for higher education in Colorado.
Campus booze binges and student deaths by alcohol poisoning. Microscopic minority hiring numbers. Alleged rapes by football recruits. Professor Ward Churchill drawing the ire of a post-9/11 nation and under investigation for alleged plagiarism.
So when higher education comes, hat in hand, saying voters should fork over more taxpayer money when they go to the polls in 10 days, it faces a big hurdle.
"Higher education has a serious public relations problem," said Jessica Peck Corry, director of the campus accountability project at the Independence Institute, which opposes Referendums C and D on the state's Nov. 1 ballot.
As lawmakers have struggled to balance the state's budget in a tough economy the past four years, higher education has taken the hardest hit. Not so much because of its PR problems - though those haven't helped - but because higher education doesn't have the legal or political protection of some other parts of the budget.
K-12 is guaranteed a funding increase each year under Amendment 23; growth in prison inmates must be accommodated; and Medicaid, under federal rules, must pay for rising caseloads and health care costs.
Higher education has been the easy target. What happened as a result is a little more complicated.
Politics and posturing
Higher education has lost more than $150 million - about a fifth of its state funding - since 2002. But add in tuition increases, grants and federal aid, and higher ed's total budget has grown by 12 percent.
That still hasn't been enough to keep up with rising costs and increasing enrollment, education leaders say. Total spending per student from all sources has grown less than 1 percent since 2001, not counting inflation. So colleges have cut programs, shrunk raises and put off building and maintenance.
The story of what has happened in higher education has been muddied by politics and posturing. This summer, it boiled over into an ugly scene - electronically, at least.
In June, then-CU President Betsy Hoffman sent out an e-mail to business and community leaders, defending a proposed 28 percent increase in tuition for Colorado residents that she said was needed because of severe budget cuts. It was immediately shot down by the state's Commission on Higher Education, which fired back with a stinging "Reality Check" e-mail of its own.
Hoffman said CU had cut nearly 500 of 15,000 staff on all campuses, left 100 positions empty, increased class sizes by 20 percent, killed four academic programs, postponed $120 million in building plans, froze salaries for some employees and reduced student services, such as counseling.
The commission said CU hadn't done enough. It could make professors teach more, use classroom space more efficiently and have more classes on Mondays, Fridays and evenings.
Both sides cited conflicting figures. In one case, the commission miscalculated how much was spent per student. Throughout the debate on higher education's funding, sorting out the truth has been a challenge.
Faculty workload, research
Take the often-heard complaint that professors don't spend enough time teaching. At CU - a top research university nationally - professors average two classes, or about five hours teaching, a week. That's below what CU's peer schools report. However, every other four-year state school reported higher-than-average faculty workload, according to the state Commission on Higher Education.
Class sizes have grown, but again the story is mixed. Small classes are considered those with fewer than 20 students; large classes have more than 50. Compared with its peers, CU has more of both, though most state schools have larger-than-average classes, commission data show.
Much has been made of record tuition increases, with Colorado topping the nation at 17 percent this year. At CU, tuition has increased 60 percent in the four years it took many in last year's class to graduate. But tuition statewide is still cheaper than the national average - in some cases by more than a thousand dollars.
At CU-Boulder, for example, resident tuition is half that for in-state students at peer universities, such as the University of Michigan or Ohio State University.
Hank Brown, the new interim CU president who's known for trimming budgets, said he plans to look at such things as professor workload. He already cut $6.7 million from CU's budget request for next year, making it 22 percent smaller than last year's request.
But don't make assumptions, he's quick to add. For instance, professors' research outside the classroom resulted in nine new companies in the past year.
"The university is an engine to bring new business and high- tech business to Colorado," Brown said.
It also helps the university's bottom line. Last year, the CU office that helps launch new companies brought in almost $22 million. CU's technology transfer office has been the most successful, but other universities are following suit with their own research.
If state funding continues on its current trend, that research is at risk because federal and private research grants are likely to go elsewhere, Brown said. Some faculty already have been wooed away by schools offering higher salaries, and those professors take their research with them.
Last year, CU brought in $588.6 million in research grants, four times the amount it received in state taxes. The research that professors do outside the classroom is vital to the quality of the university and to its bottom line, Brown said.
"The truth is, there's very little overhead payment for research," Brown said. "That makes it very profitable for the university."
Prestige pays, Brown said. Awards - such as the Nobel Prize awarded a CU physicist this year - help bring more research grants and more out-of-state students, whose tuition subsidizes that of in-state students, helping more Coloradans go to college. Out-of-state students pay more than $30,000 a year for tuition, fees, boarding and books.
"If you lower the quality of the university, the $30,000 is going to go somewhere else," Brown said. "They're willing to pay a large amount for a prestigious university. The net impact, if you lower quality, is you would lose research and out-of-state students. It's critical not to destroy the quality of the institution."
And quality will head downhill unless something changes in the way the state funds it, Brown added.
"People ask: Why can't you run CU-Boulder for the same cost as a community college? The answer is pretty basic," Brown said. "One, you wouldn't have the graduate programs that bring prestige, reputation and scholarship, but cost more than they're bringing in. Two, you'd lose most of your externally-funded research."
Record tuition increases
Last year, the legislature gave all the state's institutions of higher learning "enterprise" status. That excused them from the limits of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which allows the state to keep only as much revenue as last year's budget plus population growth and inflation. The change left colleges free to raise tuition faster than TABOR had allowed, though the legislature still gets final say on tuition rates.
But education leaders said the record increases in tuition still didn't make up for increased costs. Now, if Referendums C and D don't pass, they say, higher education's head will be on the chopping block. They say the quality of a college education in Colorado will suffer - and eventually so will the quality of the state's work force, the research that happens in Colorado and the jobs that depend on both.
That was enough to alarm business leaders.
This month, the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. said protecting the quality of higher education in Colorado was one of its top concerns, and it launched a council to address it. Last month, business leaders also held a summit to stress the education-economy connection. And some testified before lawmakers that more support for higher education is needed or Colorado will face a gap in qualified workers for certain high- skilled jobs.
Higher education is part of the oil that keeps the state's economic engine running smoothly, the business leaders said. Stop putting enough oil in the engine and it's going to sputter.
But the only malfunction so far, says Corry at the Independence Institute, is that colleges have balanced their budget on the backs of students by raising tuition.
"Families are forced to foot the bill for the chronic lack of accountability in our system," said Corry, who adds that Ref C does nothing to require accountability from colleges. "If the situation is so dire, then they need to be looking at cuts."
"What does she think we've been doing?" asks Bruce Benson, who heads the Board of Trustees at Metropolitan State College of Denver and co-chairs the pro-C and D campaign. "We've cut and cut and cut. If we keep cutting, we're going to start slashing bone and muscle."
Like Brown, Benson carries clout with fiscal conservatives. He's a successful businessman who backs TABOR and is high enough in the Republican Party to be in personal contact with President George W. Bush. But he's been talking more lately to a different president - Stephen Jordan at Metro State - about what the school will do if Refs C and D pass or fail.
The college, now the second-largest public institution of higher learning in the state with 21,109 students, can't keep increasing class size, cutting services or hiring more part-time professors, Jordan says.
"We're already maxed out" on class size and space, Jordan said. "So it's not like we can just put 15 more students in a classroom."
Jordan says the options are limited if Ref C fails: Make across- the-board cuts and hope the funding picture gets better in the future. Or start cutting entire programs. But that's easier said than done, he added.
"Do you start with high-cost programs, like our aviation program, which is very well-regarded but expensive? Or nursing - very expensive, but in very high demand with huge work force needs? Or do we go after liberal arts, which if you think about it, instill what businesses are looking for: critical thinking, analytical skills, communication.
"Maybe we could eliminate the student writing center? But do you say to people who need that help: You're on your own? We could carve out administration and financial aid. But then what happens to students who need those?"
Student climbing wall
If the situation is so dire, why did Metro build a $90,000 climbing wall for its students, asks Beth Skinner, Colorado director for Freedom Works, a national small-government group that opened a state branch here to fight Ref C.
The money for the wall came from student fees, plus $5,000 from the college's student services money, Jordan said. He said he approves of the wall for the same reason he'd consider reallocating money to invest in student housing.
"We want to create co-curricular activities because having a sense of community for students is also about learning study habits and social skills, and those help you succeed in college," Jordan said. "It's no different with the climbing wall."
Those things are more important than ever, Jordan said, because with the budget cuts, Metro has lost something vital.
"I hear from legislators and the community all the time: Students got great advice here because they could see their teachers. This mentoring was a great quality - and you've lost it," Jordan said.
Today, only 38 percent of Metro's faculty members are full-time professors. The rest are adjunct faculty, with outside jobs that take their time and attention. Jordan already has decided to hire 60 new full-time professors to try to bring Metro back to what it once was. But that will happen only if Refs C and D pass, he said.
Continued reductions won't cut it, Benson said. Something has to give and it shouldn't be higher education, he added. In the battle over keeping Colorado a small-government, low-tax, fiscally conservative state, education shouldn't become a casualty, Benson said.
"We need to help people who need help," Benson said. "I'm not saying support them. We need to teach them how - that's the Republican way, and that's what higher education does. I'm not saying you can't succeed without an education, but it certainly gives you a leg up."
Douglas Bruce, the man who wrote TABOR and keeps a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his shirt pocket, disagrees. Having the state fund any portion of higher education is akin to socialism, he said.
"That's the redistribution of wealth," he said.
Bruce speaks for many opponents of Refs C and D when he says the higher education budget has grown 12 percent overall in the past four years, and higher education just needs to cut more, not raise tuition more.
Supporters say more cuts can always be made, but not without doing serious harm to students' access to education and the quality of what they receive for the money.
So here's the final question: Whom do you believe?
Myths about higher ed
• Myth: Even though the state cut higher education's budget, colleges more than made up for it with tuition increases.
Reality: Higher education's total budget, including federal funds, fees and tuition, has grown 12 percent since 2001. But state general fund money for operating costs dropped 20 percent. With enrollment growth, the total amount spent per student has grown less than 1 percent, without factoring in inflation.
• Myth: Higher education isn't really in a financial crisis because its total budget has grown by 18 percent in the past four years.
Reality: It's true that the budget grew by 18 percent. But that includes fees, grants and federal aid. Fees pay for the services they cover, such as student housing or books. Research grants more than pay for research, helping to fund other areas of the budget. But the part of the budget that pays operating costs, such as utility bills and professors' paychecks, has shrunk in recent years, and there's not enough from the rest of the budget to make up for it.
• Myth: Former Sen. Hank Brown cut millions of dollars at the University of Northern Colorado when he was president there. If he shows the rest of the state how to cut the fat from higher ed, everything will be fine.
Reality: Brown did find $6 million in savings at UNC, but he channeled that into professors' salaries, which he found to be underfunded. Brown now heads CU and already has revised the budget request for next year by $6.7 million, making it 22 percent smaller than last year's request. But even so, he says higher education needs Refs C and D.
Refs C and D at a glance
• Referendum C would allow the state to keep an estimated $3.7 billion in revenue over five years that otherwise would have to be refunded under spending limits of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. The state estimates that would cost taxpayers an average of $490 over five years, or $100 a year, and possibly some tax credits.
• Referendum D, which only takes effect if voters approve it and Ref C, would allow the state to issue bonds to borrow against the expected revenues and devote money immediately to roads, schools, and the police and firefighter pension funds.
• This is what the state says it would do with the money:
30% for K-12 schools: For such things as textbooks, libraries and kindergarten
30% for health care: For such things as programs for the elderly, low-income and disabled people, and programs to lower health insurance costs
30% for community and state colleges: For such things as need-based financial aid, merit-based financial aid, and the College Opportunity Fund Program, which directs $2,400 a year per student to college costs
10% for repayment of Referendum D bonds, which break down as follows:
•ROADS AND BRIDGES
Work on 55 projects approved by the Colorado Department of Transportation:
• K-12 SCHOOLS
Capital funds to repair dilapidated buildings in the poorest school districts. Typically, each $2 of these funds are matched by $1 by local districts, which means $220 million in total improvements: $147 million
• HIGHER EDUCATION
Improvements and repairs to facilities at universities, colleges and community colleges: $50 million
• FIREFIGHTER AND POLICE PENSION FUND
Colorado's share of the state-local match to the pension fund, which the state has deferred for several years because of the budget crunch: $175 million