University of Colorado college students
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Students walk on the campus of the University of Colorado.

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By Joey Bunch

Colorado Politics

If you’re proud of Colorado’s world-class universities, thank a donor or a tapped-out parent. The Colorado Legislature? Eh, only if you’ve got any gratitude to spare, because the General Assembly has other priorities.

Colorado enjoys one of the highest reputations for higher learning, and one of the most educated populations of any state (because of brainiacs who move here). And, yet, Colorado is among the worst states for public funding of higher education and for local kids going to college.

The Atlantic magazine called it the “Colorado Paradox.”

While K-12 teachers make a lot of noise about their schools’ needs and taxpayers’ poor job of meeting them, college presidents in Colorado do what they can, begging for donations and partnerships or hiking tuition.

Last year, Stephen Jordan, the then-retiring president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, predicted that contributions from the Legislature might eventually fade to nothing.

“I don’t see anything on the horizon that would make that prediction not come true,” he told Colorado Public Radio.

In other words, get ready to pay up, parents of young ones with college in Colorado in mind. What it also very likely means is that as Colorado courts high-tech employers, those companies will bring many of their skilled and best-paid workers from out of state, which means more people, higher home prices and more traffic.

Tuition has more than doubled in the last 10 years at Colorado colleges, from $5,114 to $10,604 this year. The national average tuition is $8,612.

In a report released in February, the Colorado Department of Higher Education said: “In Colorado and across the nation over the last 15 years, the burden of higher education costs has dramatically shifted from the state to the student.”

Twenty years ago, the state covered 68 percent of the cost of higher education. Now it covers 36 percent. The state has a master plan to get to a 66 percent share from the state budget by 2025.

Overall, the Legislature added $75.7 million to the higher education budget last session, including $16.8 million through Senate Bill 262 for targeted master-plan programs on affordability.

Defensive politicians will point to the College Affordability Act in 2014 that set a $60 million (11 percent) increase for Colorado’s public institutions of higher education, but the next two budgets provided the lowest year-over-year increases in more than a decade.

Then, two years ago, the General Assembly chose to hold the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s appropriation flat, a win for universities since the Legislature resisted a request from the office of Gov. John Hickenlooper to slash $20 million.

Last year’s budget provided only a “modest investment in higher education,” according to CDHE.

The private sector has stepped up.

The University of Colorado has seen outside research funding go from about $660 million a year to more than $1 billion the past decade. Colorado State University has a smaller footprint, but it’s raised more than $300 million annually for research for a decade. Last year, CSU researchers struck deals with 44 companies and obtained 66 patents. CSU ranks as the No. 7 college for agricultural sciences in America, according to the educational website Niche.

Critics are quick to criticize staffing and faculty wages for the high cost of a college degree, but that doesn’t hold true in Colorado. Taxpayers in only two states, Vermont and New Hampshire, contribute a smaller share of payroll than Colorado.

CU President Bruce Benson is a billion-dollar man, because he’s raised that much several times over for the CU system. His ability to fundraise adds heavy weight to his announcement last month that he plans to retire next year.

Benson suffered the slings and arrows of the university’s outrageous fortunes for a decade, taking office just as the recession began. Anyone being fair would note that the former Republican state party chairman and wealthy oilman is a big reason the university still is ranked among the best colleges in the nation and the world.

But when he took the job, CU’s bank account was falling like a thermometer in a Boulder October.

In 2008, CU was getting $227 million from the state Legislature, he told me, “and probably should have been getting $350 million, just to be comparable” to similar-sized colleges.

The state’s contribution dropped to $145 million, and the Obama administration stepped in to backfill CU’s budget for two years. But rather than hope for the best, Benson did what he does best: He slashed the size of the business and started looking elsewhere for capital — meaning his rich friends he could persuade to leave a legacy.

“Bad budgets make you do the things you need to do, or in my case the things I want to do, which is even things out,” he told me. “My attitude has been, ‘Well, those are the cards we’re dealt, screw it, let’s just get out there and work hard and get things done,’ so we went through and started our efficiency programs the day I started, basically — let’s cut this out, we don’t really need to do this, etc., etc., etc.”

CU has pawed its way back to $212 million a year in state money, even though Colorado’s economy has roared back. Nonetheless, the state’s flagship university is getting $15 million less today than a decade ago in the face of inflation and with 20 percent enrollment growth, Benson said.

He has statistics that show CU would be getting $411 million a year if the Buffaloes roamed in another state.

Donors give because they want to make their university the best, Benson said.

When he started, the university was raising an average of $135 million a year. This year, CU is at “$435 million and counting,” Benson said.

“If you want to be one of the greatest universities in the world, you have to ask how you do that. I say it’s only one thing. You have to go out and hire the very best scientists, faculty or whatever needs you’ve got. If you’ve got the best, the students will want to be here.”

That is, if they can afford it.

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