After A Pandemic Year Filled With Uncertainty, Lawmakers Set To Raise Colorado Higher Ed Funding

Flags Fly At Denver’s Auraria Campus
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Flags fly at Denver’s Auraria Campus representing CU Denver, Metropolitan State, and Community College of Denver, May 20, 2020.

Updated Monday 3:30 p.m.

When Colorado started to feel the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, public colleges and universities were one of the first on the chopping block to reduce the state’s anticipated revenue shortfall. 

A year later, their budgets have been restored to pre-pandemic levels, and then some. Joint Budget Committee Vice Chair state Rep. Julie McCluskie said higher education institutions are getting a total funding increase of $100 million.

“I'm really proud of the fact that through a lot of discussion and collaboration with our institutions, we were able to bring forward this increase for them this year,” she said.

A big focus on improving equity

Several restorations to the budget aim to close the equity gap that persists in higher education. This year’s “Long Bill” could include funding for a statewide officer that oversees educational equity. Angie Paccione, who leads Colorado’s Department of Higher Education, said her office secured funding for the position last year, but it fell through due to pandemic budget shortfalls.. 

The Chief Educational Equity Officer would assist in the department’s goal to have 66 percent of Coloradans attain a postsecondary degree by 2025. While the position wouldn’t focus on minority populations, Paccione said they will be an inherent focal point since people of color in Colorado are disproportionately less likely to hold a degree than a white resident.

“We're strictly focused on equity, which is success. And that means credential completion,” Paccione said. “So we are going to assist all of the institutions on making sure that the students of color that enroll also graduate. It's not enough to just enroll a diverse student population.”

Earlier this year, higher education leaders signed their yearly unified letter to lawmakers with a funding request. This year, Metropolitan State University Denver’s logo wasn’t attached to the letterhead.

Instead, MSU’s president Janine Davidson made a separate request. She asked for $50 million over five years, which would be used to help underrepresented students earn their degrees. This year, with an additional $8.5 million budgeted for MSU, she said they got pretty close.

“The underrepresented minorities and the low-income and the first-generation students have traditionally gotten less money per student from the state for whatever reason,” Davidson said. “For the legislators in the long bill to explicitly say that they're going to try to correct that and begin to make efforts to correct that was a big win for those students.” 

Institutions will still have to raise tuition

Higher education leaders have praised lawmakers for helping to restore the budget, but in some cases, it still isn’t enough. While scholarship funds have increased, some students will still have to pay higher tuition. 

Public universities are permitted to raise tuition by three percent for the next school year. The University of Colorado system voted to take advantage of that allowance, but used federal stimulus dollars to temporarily keep rates flat for a year. Others, like the Colorado Community College System, voted to keep tuition flat despite a decrease in enrollment. Several boards have yet to vote on next year’s tuition.

Greeley’s University of Northern Colorado got approved for an even steeper tuition increase. The university, which is one of the more affordable four-year institutions in Colorado, said the state’s proportionately low funding of higher education puts them in a position where a rise in student revenue is needed to fund vital programs. UNC president Andy Feinstein said a seven percent increase would provide an additional $4.7 million. 

“Of that $4.7 million, half of that will be reinvested into institutional financial aid. So half will be going back to support our most neediest students. In fact, 30 percent of our students will not be paying any tuition and fees at all. The rest of those funds will be invested in student success initiatives,” Feinstein said.

The 2021 budget projects universities will receive a total increase of about $130 million of tuition revenue. It also includes a projected increase of $11 million in mandatory student fees.

Progress made, but room for improvement

The Long Bill presents a victory for the state’s higher education advocates, but it also represents a perennial problem in Colorado — the state’s fiscal structure leaves little room for funding colleges. 

Even with this year’s increase in funding, Colorado’s universities operate with significantly less state appropriations than peers in other states. McCluskie said that the problem may be inherent, thanks to TABOR.

“I think the challenge is that the complications with TABOR limitations mean that we are constantly having to look at a finite number of dollars, a limited pie, and having to divvy it up across so many priorities in this state,” McCluskie said. “When we look to try and fund, say, higher education at a much higher level, it means we've got to take dollars away from some of these other very important departments.”

MSU’s Davidson said she’s happy with the budget, but she hopes next year’s will continue to help dig higher education out of the financial hole it’s in.

“A big looming issue is the deferred maintenance and capital needs for a lot of our universities and MSU Denver in particular,” she said. 

Campuses like CU Boulder, MSU and UNC have millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance on their campus. In some cases, students find themselves paying higher fees that aim to remedy the issue.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Colorado Department of Higher Education secured funding for the Chief Educational Equity Officer last year, but budget shortfall in the pandemic postponed it.