We frequently hear how Colorado ranks last, or otherwise near the bottom in terms of higher education taxpayer funding. This, in part, results from the Colorado Constitution's requirements for a balanced budget and voter permission for tax hikes.
Meanwhile, Colorado's public universities are the envy of the country. Maybe that's because the dearth of government largess forces university leaders to manage institutions within constraints of market demands. They raise private funds and produce graduates with degrees and skills that suit employers.
All four campuses thrive, including Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.
University officials throughout the country travel here to meet with CU President Bruce Benson and his staff to learn how it is done. They want to know about public-private partnerships with industries that help fund the university. They want to know how the university corrects for academic ideological biases among faculty, and they want to know how applications for admission continue soaring.
The Gazette's editorial board met recently with CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano to discuss what the university does right.
As leader of the system's flagship campus, DiStefano manages demand other colleges and universities only dream of. The campus received more than 37,000 applications in 2017 for 6,500 freshman slots. This year it anticipates more than 40,000 applications. The institution is building another new dorm, scheduled to open in 2019, to house 750 additional students. Progress continues toward a long-anticipated South Campus.
The magic potion at CU is simultaneously ingenious and mind-bogglingly simple.
DiStefano, like most of the administration throughout the system, runs his campus like a business. That involves treating students, prospective students, and tuition-paying parents as customers who want the school to make economic sense.
The campus is three years into a pilot program that guarantees incoming freshman their tuition and fees will not increase during four years of consecutive enrollment. DiStefano credits the guarantee with causing a 67 percent application increase among Colorado residents. He also believes the program will increase the rate of students who graduate within four-year stints.
"It is an incentive to graduate on time," he said. "If they stay that fifth year, they pay the new rate of the incoming freshman class."
Beginning in the fall of 2018, the university will offer students what may seem like a massive tax cut. It will eliminate $8.5 million in course and program fees traditionally charged to students.
"Prior to this, students would get a bill for tuition, and mandatory fees — such as lab fees, athletic fees and health fees," DiStefano said.
Fees range from a few dollars to $1,200 for each course.
"We decided the campus will pick up the cost of course fees because enrollment has been so consistently good we want to give something back to the students and their parents," he said.
If that is not enough to treat students as customers, the university has moved to substantially reduce the cost of textbooks.
"Text books typically cost $500 to $600 per semester," DiStefano said. "We're working with student government — this is a high priority for student government — to put all textbooks online so they become a minimal cost. Instead of $100 for a book, it may be $10 to buy an electronic version online."
As seen in Colorado, higher education can make the needs of consumers the highest order of business. The result is education students and their parents can trust and afford. It explains why Colorado enrollments are soaring, as universities throughout the country endure declining demand and try to replicate the Colorado model.