The Disconnect

A troubling lack of state funding is shifting the burden of higher education costs onto students—and the real victim might be Colorado’s future economy.
January 2014

Darian Guenther, an 18-year-old senior at Northglenn High School, is doing everything right to get into college. Her 4.3 GPA ensures her admission to any number of schools, as does her strong performance in her five current AP classes. Everything’s going perfectly for Guenther, who one day wants to enter the medical field. Everything except for finances.

Her mother, Jessica, 34, is an unmarried social worker who’s still paying off her own student loans. Jessica considers herself to be middle-class; she simply doesn’t have the money to cover Darian’s forthcoming college costs. Their fervent hope is that Darian will receive some serious scholarship cash. If that doesn’t happen, they’re not sure what they’ll do.

Even though Colorado has ranked among the top five most educated states in the nation since as far back as 1940, Darian’s situation is becoming more and more common. “You see a lot of students who are in the bind that Darian is in,” says Northglenn High’s assistant principal Matt Oehlert. “And it’s not just kids like Darian; it’s a universal struggle for all the kids who want to go to college. In Colorado, it’s getting worse and worse.”

“We’re this funny square state in the middle of nothing with highly educated people,” says James Jacobs, a higher education policy analyst at Colorado Mesa University. He’s seated at a granite-topped counter in his Denver home, and he’s delivering what seems like great news: Colorado has stellar, nationally recognized colleges and universities. We have high-paying jobs ready to be filled by all our fresh-faced graduates. And, he says, we’ve long been a high-income state.

Then Jacobs reveals a sobering follow-up: When it comes to educating our own these days…well, we’re not exactly failing, but there’s tremendous room for improvement. Over the past decade, Colorado has reduced its higher education funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. (In 2000, the state covered 68 percent of a student’s costs at Colorado public universities; now, the proportion has dropped to just 32 percent.) That, in turn, has produced skyrocketing tuition rates, which have begun pushing low- and middle-income families (often minorities) out of the collegiate system. If these trends continue, Jacobs warns, Colorado workers will increasingly have only high school diplomas, not advanced degrees, making it more difficult for them to land jobs—and potentially affecting the state economy.

Colorado now ranks 49th in state spending on higher education, down from 35th in 1991. Why the decline? Some of it has to do with TABOR, the loved and loathed 1992 legislation that’s jujitsu-ed our public funding process into submission. TABOR dictates that tax hikes must be put to a popular vote and that the state cannot spend more than six percent above the previous year’s spending (after adjusting for inflation and population growth). This remains true regardless of how much revenue is generated without raising taxes—or how much has been lost because of predicaments like the recent recession.

The situation has victimized higher education funding via repeated cuts, because higher education is the only public service with the alternative revenue stream of tuition. Subtracting from college funding lets the state finance other services in hard times without reaching TABOR’s spending limits. Over the years, our Legislature and various governors have repeatedly told postsecondary institutions: You can always raise tuition.

Doing so shifts the burden from the state to students (or their parents) via loans the families hope will one day prove to be worth it. Last spring, the University of Colorado Board of Regents approved an 8.7 percent tuition hike, and over the last 12 years tuition at CU has increased by 139 percent. Unless you’re part of the upper middle class (or above), how do you afford the annual in-state $10,343 tuition (including mandatory fees) at CU Boulder—not to mention the associated costs of housing, food, books, and the many other etceteras any college student faces?

The wealthy can cover it. The poor can get Pell Grants, but those top out at $5,645—a mere dent in the annual cost of many four-year colleges. As for middle-income students like Darian, whose families make too much to qualify for meaningful grant money but not enough to pay the tuition outright, the path isn’t so clear.