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Opinion: Education funding increase is a big step forward for Colorado students and families

Earlier this month, the Joint Budget Committee in the state legislature approved a 12.9 percent increase in the budget allocation to support Colorado’s public institutions of higher education.  

This increase, which was strongly supported by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and was part of both former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s and Gov. Jared Polis’ budget requests, was designed to allow public institutions of higher education to hold tuition flat for in-state students and families next year, providing a measure of relief from the rising cost of higher education and the growth of student debt.  

Daniel Baer

The full legislature should approve the funding in the current version of the long bill and thereby reinvest some of the dividends of Colorado’s economic success to deliver for Colorado families.

But even as we celebrate this significant reinvestment in higher education — the largest increase in generations — we cannot declare victory.  

Even with this increase, our investment in public higher education has not recovered from the Great Recession. In fact, after the increase in front of the legislature, our state commitment to higher education will still be almost $400 million short of our spending in 2000, adjusted for population growth and inflation.  

A generation ago, state funding covered roughly two-thirds of the cost of a student’s education, while tuition supported one third. After the Great Recession that ratio flipped, and Colorado students and families continue to bear a much greater share of the cost than they did just 20 years ago.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

This overall decline in public funding — Colorado ranks 46th in the country in terms of per student funding for higher education, spending around 55 cents on the dollar compared to the national average — has come at a particularly bad time: exactly the moment when we have recognized that we have entered a new “skills age” where the skills to compete in an increasingly technologically advanced and global economy are, for most people, essential to having a shot at a middle class life.  

For the first time in American history, experts agree that a significant majority of American workers will need some sort of post-secondary training.

The coincidence of these two trends — the disinvestment in higher education and the near-requirement of some sort of post-secondary credential in order to have a shot of working one’s way into the middle class — is a double whammy for many Coloradans, particularly for Coloradans of color, who are far less likely to have family wealth that can help defray the cost of higher education.

When I was executive director of the Department of Higher Education, we conducted research to better understand the 44 percent of Coloradans over 25 who have no post-secondary credential.  

One of the striking things we found was that more than seven out of 10 of Coloradans of color are in that 44 percent.  So are two out of three among Colorado’s veterans. This is unacceptable.

There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets, but a few principles should guide our work:

  1. It’s not just about pushing more people through a pipe, it’s about building more pipes.  Four-year college degrees will continue to be one option on the menu, but they are not the only option, and for many students they are not the best option. Community colleges should be the foundation for our success in this new “skills age”; they have the ability to deliver time- and cost-efficient upskilling that is tailored to local economic needs and can help people get good jobs. High-quality apprenticeships, certificates and “micro credentials” that allow learners to gain knowledge and skills in smaller increments — and work in between — will become more popular.
  2. We must be laser-focused on equity. We must do this because of the two Ms — morals and math. The gaps in education outcomes for different groups of Coloradans are morally unacceptable. White Coloradans are around twice as likely as non-whites to have some sort of post-secondary credential (and therefore a good shot at working their way into the middle class). When we make college inaccessible to working and lower-income learners we replicate inequality and inequity in our system. The other reason is math: there’s simply no way for us to provide the workforce that employers in Colorado need if we don’t figure out how to close our equity gaps. The numbers just don’t add up.
  3. We need to throw out our stereotypes — the average college student is not an 18-year-old with a backpack and a part-time job. Many of the folks who are learning today at our institutions of higher ed are people who have been in the workforce, who have returned to get training that will help them progress in their careers or start a new one. They are parents. They are veterans. They are working full-time. They bring life experience — good and bad — to the table. We need to figure out how to serve them.
  4. Change our frame. Post-secondary education and training is no longer a nice-to-have — it’s increasingly a must have, not only so that individuals have a shot at a middle class life, but also for all of us to succeed as a society. We need people to get skills not just so they can live good lives, but so the rest of us can, too. Colorado won’t have the strongest economy in the country in 20 or 30 years if we don’t figure out how to get more Coloradans the skills and education they need to have.

President Trump’s latest budget proposal, issued earlier this month, is cruelty and shortsightedness conveyed in numbers. It would cut public service student loan forgiveness programs — often the only way that those who don’t have family wealth can afford to go into public service — and would slash teacher training and development funding. That’s crazy: we need more people to choose the service career of teaching, not fewer.

Gov. Polis has made education a signature issue — Colorado’s legislature should work with him to drive progress from pre-K to post-secondary and to ensure that Colorado rejects Trump’s shortsightedness. An investment in Coloradans is an investment in Colorado’s future.

Daniel Baer is a diplomatic fellow at DU’s Josef Korbel School. He served as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education under former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Rising Sun