Editorial: Colorado legislators, voters must find answers to higher-ed funding woes

Colorado’s institutions of higher education long have lamented the stinginess of the state when it comes to funding colleges and universities.

TABOR — the Taxpayers Bill of Rights — a state constitutional amendment that limits state spending levels to the rate of population growth plus inflation, hasn’t allowed the state to keep pace with higher-ed needs. And voters have soundly rejected efforts to remove those spending limits.

So what’s the answer for higher ed?

Colorado ranks 47th nationwide for funding of higher ed per student, which has pushed colleges and universities to hike tuition, rely on research funding, emphasize private donations and focus on securing out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than those from in the state.

Tuition at Colorado’s four-year institutions increased by 68 percent from 2008 to 2018, according to a report by the Colorado Department of Higher Education, with tuition at two-year institutions up 52 percent during that time.

The University of Colorado Boulder receives just 4.8 percent of its funding — $91.2 million — directly from the state, as the cost burden has shifted to students.

Even so, the economic impact of Colorado’s colleges and universities is far-reaching:

• CU Boulder is estimated to generate $3.8 billion in economic impact. A 2019 report estimated that the university’s technology-transfer efforts alone generate a five-year economic impact of $1.9 billion.

• The CU system overall — including four campuses and two partner hospitals — generate an economic impact of $12.35 billion.

• A report released Feb. 25 found that four Northern Colorado colleges and universities — Colorado State University, the University of Northern Colorado, Aims Community College and Front Range Community College — generate economic impact of $3.9 billion and supported 50,000 jobs in Larimer and Weld counties.

Those estimates should pressure state legislators and the people of Colorado to seek new ways to fund higher education. Without a new approach, the state’s colleges and universities will continue to struggle.

UNC president Andy Feinstein announced in early February that the Greeley-based institution would slash 65 non-faculty staff members and eliminate some other positions by mid-March as a way to alleviate a budget shortfall.

The problem will only get worse, especially in the event of an economic downturn.

Funding proposals in the current session of the Colorado Legislature call for increases for higher ed, but not enough to cover inflation and new mandates on salary increases for state workers.

Short term, the Legislature should maximize what it can give to higher ed. Long term, look for more layoffs and soaring tuition.