Colorado is 49th in the nation for public funding of higher education.  But the solution may be a tough sell.  A committee appointed by Governor Bill Ritter wants to ask the public to pay more for colleges and universities.

Read the Committee's final report (opens as a PDF)

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For members of the Higher Education Strategic Planning Committee, the question was never, does the system need more money?  The question, as committee chair Jim Lyons puts it, is how to convince the public to chip in.

LYONS: "At the end of the day, this is their decision -- what kind of state do you want to have? What kind of higher education system do you want to have?  And what are you willing to pay for?  Because none of this comes free."

The problem is, higher education is kind of an orphan in the state budget -- one of the few big pots of money with no protection.  So in hard times, it’s generally one of the first places lawmakers cut.  And the numbers reflect that.  Over the past two decades higher education funding has shrunk from about 20-percent of the state budget to nine percent.  With that has come annual tuition increases and bare-bones school budgets.  Lyons presented his committee’s solution to that problem to the Commission on Higher Education yesterday.

LYONS: "We have recommended that the next governor and the incoming legislature address this problem with an eye toward putting a measure or measures on the ballot next November.  We simply can’t wait."

Lyons says the state could raise the income or sales tax, or look for a specific target, like the oil and gas severance tax.  But he admits that’s easier said than done.  Tax increases rarely go over well with voters, even in good economic times. And he says it doesn’t help that Colorado’s colleges and universities don’t exactly look like they’re in crisis.  Drive past and you won’t see buildings crumbling.  In fact, on many campuses, new ones are going up. 

JORDAN: "I think people look at the buildings and the buildings are sort of a symbol of what they think is going on.  But it doesn’t necessarily indicate what’s happening inside the buildings."

Steven Jordan is the president of Metropolitan State College in Denver.  He says student fees are paying for new construction on campus.  Where he’s had to cut is in the operating budget: trimming student services and hiring fewer professors.

JORDAN: "It means that we don’t have the kind of full-time faculty in there to teach students the most current things they need to know to be successful out in the workplace.  It means that we don’t have the array of support services to help particularly academically challenged students."

Construction is underway for a new building at the School of Mines in Golden.  On a recent morning, the campus was the picture of idyllic academic life: students shuffling through fall leaves on their way across the main quad.  But bring up the question of tuition with these students, and reality intrudes fast.

LITTMAN: "It sucks.  I dunno, it’s really hard, it’s gone up every year since we’ve been here."

Junior Patricia Littman says the expense is worth it for the good-paying engineering job she hopes to get with her degree.  But she also believes society has a stake in helping students like her, before tuition gets too high for them to manage.

LITTMAN: "If they don’t help fund students to go to hire education, there won’t be anybody to do the engineering and the accounting and the teaching for people’s future children."

Littman’s classmate Megan Helper disagrees.

HELPER: "I don’t think that it’s the public’s responsibility to pay for me to go to college.  It’s not.  I mean, it’s unfair that it’s expensive and it’s unfair that it’s a lot of money and it should be a right.  But it’s not anybody else’s responsibility to pay for it but mine."

Whether or not Helper and Littman, and the Colorado public, will get a chance to  weigh in on funding for higher education rests with the General Assembly.  That body has to approve any tax measure for the ballot, a high bar in the best of times.  And these are not the best of times.  Many of the candidates who won Tuesday night ran on cutting government spending.  And Governor-elect John Hickenlooper has said the public has no appetite for new taxes.