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GUEST COLUMN: The precarious future of Colorado's public higher education

By: Jay Helman
July 15, 2017 Updated: July 15, 2017 at 4:25 am
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July 2 marked the 155th anniversary of the birth of American public higher education, when Abraham Lincoln signed into law the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act. This law established a covenant providing federal land grants for states to build public colleges and universities. In return, states agreed to allocate sufficient financial support to subsidize affordable state-resident tuition rates.

Prior to the Land Grant Act, higher education was provided by private colleges dependent on high tuition rates. With the 1862 Act, education became affordable to a broader sector of each state's population, and thus began a public enterprise that transformed the financial, cultural and educational engines of the country.

Substantial state funding allowed public institutions to keep tuition rates low and to provide an education similar to those offered by private colleges. Affordable tuition made possible a more socioeconomically diverse student body than those found on private campuses.

Accessibility to public education was consistent with the core American value of equal opportunities. The model of high state funding support and low tuition worked well in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but has shifted dramatically in the past few decades.

In 2002, tuition revenue accounted for only 30 percent of the funds necessary to operate state colleges and universities. The remaining 70 percent of operating costs came from state budget allocations, a proportion consistent with the agreement established in 1862.

However, the core principle of low tuition has changed in recent years. A study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers indicates that the proportion of operating support has substantially shifted to students. Similarly, according to the American Council on Education, state support shrank nearly 70 percent between 1980 and 2011.

Today, tuition accounts for 70 percent of operational revenue at Colorado public colleges and universities. This is an alarming trend away from the spirit and intent of public higher education. Left unchecked, it will render public institutions unaffordable and inaccessible to many resident students.

Still, there are reasons to celebrate. The exceptional work done by faculty, staff and governing boards to provide quality education is laudable. Their imaginative, entrepreneurial vision and extraordinary commitment is tenacious, despite substantially diminished state support. Foundations such as El Pomar and individual philanthropists have helped greatly by answering the call of university leaders with generous gifts funding campus initiatives.

Elected officials deserve recognition for efforts to preserve public higher education as pressure mounts for many needed public services. Government leaders annually face the daunting challenge of crafting a balanced budget while complying with constitutional tax and revenue guidelines. Education and government leaders collaborate with the knowledge that colleges and universities can adjust tuition to offset budget reductions. This capacity for tuition revenue makes higher education financing a "balancing wheel" in the state budget.

Diminishing state funding portends a tenuous future for public higher education. Resolving the conundrum of low state funding and affordable tuition is fraught with complexity. If downward funding trends continue, public higher education in Colorado is not sustainable. Dependence on philanthropy and high tuition is a private education model, not the public enterprise that launched American education to global prominence in 1862. Further funding cuts are not acceptable. Unaffordable tuition shatters the promise, and need, to educate Colorado students.

Widespread citizen awareness and engagement with the issues and perils that lie ahead is vital. Nineteenth- and 20th-century models will not likely return, necessitating a new vision matching the boldness of Lincoln's era. If public higher education is to survive, Coloradans require visionary elected leaders willing to develop policies making public higher education attainable and accessible.

Thus, as citizens we must we must openly confront the precarious future of public higher education and protect against its demise in our state.

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Jay Helman is president emeritus of Western State Colorado University, serving from 2002-2013.

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