In late March, I interviewed as a finalist for a position with the University of Colorado’s communications staff. I’m a three-time Buff – undergrad, law school and an MBA – and have always loved the idea of working for my alma mater. 

Immediately after a Friday evening interview with CU President Mark Kennedy, I received an email “assignment” – two scenarios to which I needed to draft proposed responses. One in particular now seems prescient.

Mario Nicolais

In the hypothetical provided to me, Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee had returned to work after a coronavirus-imposed hiatus and decided to redirect $500 million from the public higher education appropriation to emergency preparedness and transportation.

In the imaginary circumstance, the JBC did so because it felt colleges could make up for the shortfall by increasing tuition.

Over the past few weeks, the actual JBC made several heart-wrenching decisions to close a $3 billion funding gap created by coronavirus-fueled revenue drops. Included in the cuts? More than $493 million slashed from state colleges and universities.

Thankfully, leadership at CU found avenues other than a tuition hike to overcome this shortfall. The Board of Regents recently voted to impose a “zero percent increase in tuition” for the 2020-21 academic school year. Furthermore, CU Boulder students will have their tuition locked in for four years. That means they won’t need to worry about a sudden spike necessitating premature withdrawal.

Those decisions will have a long-term and significant impact across the four CU campuses. Specifically, the board’s decisions will preserve much of the progress CU has made helping communities that historically struggle to gain access to higher education. 

Multiple studies, including several by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, have determined that tuition increases disproportionately deter low-income students and students of color from attending college.

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In Colorado, that manifests itself through the net price of attendance as a share of median household income. Currently, the net price for black and Hispanic students already exceeds 30% of median income, substantially more than that for white or Asian students. 

Any additional tuition increases would have only amplified that disparity.

In conjunction with increased costs for housing and health care across our state over the past decade – not to mention state higher ed spending that leaves Colorado fourth from the bottom – an increase in CU tuition rates would almost certainly have led to a decline in diversity on campus. That would have been detrimental to the state, the university and the students, both current and potential alike.

All students benefit from exposure to a diverse student population. 

In a time when societal racial divisions have led to tragic, unjustified deaths, subsequent protests and shots fired at the state Capitol, it is absolutely imperative that our institutions of higher education lead the way toward reconciliation. That begins with increasing access, particularly for minority communities.

CU’s efforts over the past decade to promote that diversity led it to enroll 20,027 students of color in the Fall of 2018. That represents 29% of the student population, an increase of 103% since 2009. Tuition increases would have undermined that progress.

To be clear, those numbers are not mission accomplished. Progress in promoting diversity goes well beyond meeting set metric goalposts. While simple exposure is beneficial, programs designed to increase understanding are also necessary. That is something the CU Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement works on every day.

The coronavirus pandemic created unforeseen and, until now, unimaginable obstacles to our daily lives, much less the leaders of institutions like our flagship university (sorry Ram fans!).

The decision to find alternate avenues to meet those challenges, including 10% salary reductions for multiple university leaders, underscores their unwavering commitment to students.

In the end, I did not get the job. That’s OK. As long as CU leadership continues to make choices that help our state and increase access to our future generations, I will continue to proudly declare myself a Forever Buff.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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