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Students travel to and from classes on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder on Jan. 21, 2020. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

One by one, the leaders of Colorado’s colleges and universities appeared before lawmakers to make a collective plea: Don’t neglect us — again.

The state’s higher education institutions made clear that the budget proposal from Gov. Jared Polis is the equivalent of a starvation diet that won’t cover basic costs and undercuts the administration’s goals to improve graduation rates and access for minority students.

The proposal “hurts us deeply and it ironically makes it more difficult for us to perform well in the categories outlined in the governor’s proposal,” Greg Salsbury, the president of Western Colorado University in Gunnison, said in a presentation to legislative budget writers in January.

The Democratic governor’s plan calls for a 2.5% increase in spending on higher education, or $26 million in new dollars, paired with permission for a 3% average increase in resident tuition.

The new money for fiscal year 2021, which starts July 1, is a smaller increase than what the 31 state-funded institutions in Colorado received in the prior two years. For comparison, the total new money Polis proposed is equivalent to what the University of Colorado system alone received in this year’s budget.

The proposal would not even cover the cost of a 3% state employee pay hike tentatively approved by the Joint Budget Committee. In reality, Colorado colleges and universities say they collectively need at least a 7% budget increase to cover the salary hike and other basic student services.

“The funding request (from the governor) is not adequate to cover our core costs at CU and at all the institutions,” said Todd Saliman, the chief financial officer for CU’s system of four campuses and a former lawmaker and budget writer.

The alarm is far from fearmongering.

Most years, higher education is the final priority in the state budget. And in tight times, like the one lawmakers are anticipating for next fiscal year, colleges and universities typically suffer disproportionately compared to other budget priorities, as lawmakers rely on higher tuition rates for students to make up for reductions in state dollars.

Department of Higher Education chief Angie Paccione listens as Gov. Jared Polis speaks at an event unveiling a study about outcomes of students who attend state colleges and universities. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

It took more than a decade for higher education to rebound from the Great Recession. Just this year — after two back-to-back spending increases that topped 10% — state support for higher education returned to the level prior to the 2008-09 budget. In fiscal year 2017, the most recent figures available, Colorado’s per-capita support for higher education ranked 47th lowest in the nation and per-student spending landed at in the bottom at 48th, according to a report from a Boulder-based national higher education organization.

The $112 million increase in new money from the current budget year — which came with a requirement for most campuses to hold in-state tuition flat — now looks like an anomaly.

Each year, the colleges and universities fight over the same small pot of money, said Janine Davidson, the president of Metropolitan State University of Denver. “It’s the ‘Hunger Games,’” she said. “We all want to get out of that ‘Hunger Games’ cycle.”

A new funding formula will mean winners and losers

The Polis administration’s proposal to overhaul how tax dollars are allocated to each campus in the budget is exacerbating the anxiety.

The rewrite of the higher education funding formula, outlined in a new law in 2019, means some campuses will get more and others less. The institutions and the Department of Higher Education negotiated for months before reaching a revised formula that issued new dollars based on how campuses met certain goals in the state’s master plan, such as addressing gaps in diversity and rates of completion for in-state students. 

But the Polis administration wasn’t satisfied. To gain leverage, it proposed making a portion of existing revenue also contingent on the new goals when it debuted the formula in November.

“We want to make sure the budget, as any budget does, reflects your values, and so the state has some very clear objectives about how to spend that money,” said Angie Paccione, the state’s higher education executive director and a former state lawmaker.

MORE: A new Colorado report tries to show what higher education is worth. The value is clearer for some degrees than others.

The pushback from campuses forced the Polis administration to rethink its strategy and look to rework the formula once again. The process is such a mess that nonpartisan budget analysts are recommending lawmakers disregard the administration’s formula and use the existing one for the next budget year.

Steve Schwartz, the chief operating officer at Fort Lewis College in Durango, said his campus agreed with the objectives of the new formula, but had trouble with how it was executed. 

“To the governor’s office’s credit, they realize that, ‘OK, we need to start from scratch,’” he said.

As Polis pushes cost-cutting, campuses see significant needs

The broader concern for higher education leaders is how Polis approaches college affordability. The governor argues that part of the student debt problem is an inflated cost for a college degree. And that’s reflected in his budget proposals and new approach to funding higher education.

“We are certainly focused on cost-cutting and more efficiency, and making sure all of our institutions of higher education are better incentivized about showing that value proposition,” Polis said in a recent interview.

Colorado campus leaders don’t disagree. But as they told the budget committee in recent testimony, the competition for college students is fierce, and those students want to see schools offer more services. At CU Boulder, campus leaders want to provide more financial aid, mental health services and technology to meet student demands.

“We are committed to controlling our costs so we can make the investments that are critical to the university,” Saliman said in an interview. But the needs on campus, he added, “are all things that are expensive that we are trying to figure out how to cover within our means — and things we could all make progress on with more money.”

MORE: Colorado’s universities are catering to out-of-state students. Is their public mission at risk?

At Fort Lewis, college leaders are looking to improve academic advising and student support, such as mental health services — both factors that are needed to improve retention and graduation rates. In addition, students are demanding new educational programs, such as computer engineering, that cost more to offer. 

“Students coming in today have different needs than they did 10 years ago, and the question is how do you adapt to those needs?” Schwartz said. “They need more individualized attention to make success more likely.”

A “balancing act” as needs exceed available money 

So far, the Joint Budget Committee sounds sympathetic to their concerns. State Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democratic budget writer from Commerce City, said lawmakers want to do more for higher education than the governor proposed. 

“It seems like they are trying to force efficiency through starvation,” Moreno said of the Polis administration’s approach.

But how much new money is available for higher education remains a question mark because other priorities often get money first. “What I recognize is that while we need to support them in many ways, I do also think we need to recognize the limitations of the budget,” said Rep. Kim Ransom, a Republican budget writer from Douglas County. “So I think it’s going to be a balancing act.”

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.