Those responsible for managing Colorado’s state budget over the past year – in the Governor’s Office and the legislature – haven’t had it easy. It has been a roller coaster ride, and next year will be challenging too.
While the latest federal stimulus provides needed assistance and the COVID-19 vaccination drive is gaining speed, running my business for almost two decades has taught me that economic recoveries are rarely linear and that there will likely be unforeseen complications and setbacks.
But there is encouraging news. The Colorado legislature’s Joint Budget Committee last week made the recommendation to invest in a stronger, fairer future for our state by beginning to address equity gaps in our approach to funding higher education.
The JBC called for an additional $100 million investment in higher education for the upcoming year, with more than half of the funds for serving low-income students, students of color and those who are among the first generation in their family to attend college.
The Great Recession accelerated a dangerous trend: a massive, generation-long public disinvestment in higher education. Thus, students and families were asked to shoulder an ever-increasing financial burden as colleges were forced to raise tuition to keep up.
As college becomes more expensive, the middle class struggles to pay for it while many working-class students are shut out entirely.
But it gets worse. Colorado’s higher-ed funding formula causes the schools enrolling the most low-income students and students of color to receive the least funding per student.
Metropolitan State University of Denver, for example, serves the most students of color of any Colorado university, yet receives about 40% less than the state average funding per student.
While wealthier universities can raise money by recruiting out-of-state students or staging large-scale fundraising campaigns, the schools that are the real ladders to the middle class often don’t have those luxuries.
So the JBC took an important step by investing more funding in students who have historically been underserved by our education system.
Here are two big reasons why this is a smart move:
- First, after a year that highlighted our society’s shortcomings on racial equity and social justice, the JBC has advanced equity by beginning to address the low funding level of colleges that serve students of color and low-income students. The attainment gaps between Latinx, Black and Native American Coloradans and their white peers are unacceptable. Colorado has one of the worst gaps between white and Latinx student attainment in the country. We shouldn’t perpetuate equity gaps with our public education funding.
- Second, this is a strong action for our economy. We know Colorado’s economic future depends on our ability to produce a skilled workforce. While U.S. News & World Report recently ranked Colorado as the fifth-most educated state, it’s not because of our own investments – Colorado is 48th in the country in spending on higher ed.
This is the “Colorado paradox” – our high percentage of college-educated adults is a result of migration, not education. Businesses have to recruit workers from other states to power Colorado’s advanced workforce, which isn’t sustainable long-term.
We need to rapidly expand the number of Coloradans with high-quality degrees and credentials. The institutions most crucial to expanding that pool of high-skill workers are those serving first-generation students. An investment in these students is an investment in Colorado’s future.
While the JBC’s action is a step in the right direction, much more is needed. We need to start a broader conversation about the importance of education to our collective future.
We have endured a generation of public disinvestment in higher ed just as technology and globalization have made it imperative that the vast majority of Coloradans obtain a college degree to have a fair shot at a middle-class life.
Laying the groundwork for an economy with a strong middle class requires us to be strategic with our investments – and it’s time to reinvest in higher education.
Richard Lewis is the founder and CEO of RTL Networks, a technology company based in Denver. A U.S. Air Force veteran and graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, he holds several civic leadership roles, including with MSU Denver’s Community Cabinet.
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