Will Get Fooled Again

Paul Harvey

Please pause for this special announcement. We'll be back right after this break.

Colorado's state legislative session just started, and we're looking at over $600 [update: now revised upward to $800 million to $1 billion] million in state budget cuts, the vast majority of which have to come from higher education (since health care mandates, prisons, and K-12 are for various reasons constitutionally untouchable).

We just went through this in the early 2000s, when the University of Colorado took a 38% budget hit over about three years time. Then, because of our state's Orwellian "taxpayer bill of rights" law, and its infamous "ratchet-down" effect on state finances (meaning, after a severe economic hit, state revenue is ratcheted down to a much lower level and is only allowed to grow 6% or less from that level -- and, since tuition counts as "state revenue," tuition raises automatically offset state funding towards higher ed, in a kind of quiet and un-discussed but nonetheless forced privatization of state enterprises), the university remains far below state levels of financing in 2000 (meaning, funding has gone down dramatically while student populations have grown, actually almost doubling at my university), and the state of Colorado remains mired exactly in last place -- 50th -- in per student funding in higher education. As we say here, hope you like those mountains.

Obviously other states have their own versions of this during the current economic crises. Here's the clearest explanation I have seen of how cries for "college affordability" can be a "wolf in sheep's clothing" when they serve as a substitute for an honest discussion of public dis-investment in state higher education. A little excerpt:

The outcry over rising tuition in public colleges has been overblown. Political leaders, faced with declining budget resources, especially in the states, are tempted to point the public toward tuition increases as the root of the affordability problem because it deflects attention from public disinvestment in higher education, which is the real cause of rising tuition. Progressive reformers join the tuition bandwagon because it gives their cause a populist political base, but if history is any guide, the populist assault on rising tuitions will be the enemy of progressive reformers, not their ally.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Art said…
If you haven't seen it already, PBS's Declining by Degrees gives insight into the arms race that is higher education.
Jason Bivins said…
I'm still reeling from the 38% comment!
Paul Harvey said…
Jason: For my own particular institution -- a smaller branch campus of the state university -- the hit was worse, since we are relatively more dependent (about 1/3rd, as opposed to less than 10% for the system as a whole) on the state funding part of the equation. Also, our students are lower income on average than the students at the other CU campuses (largely because of our location in southern Colorado), making tuition raises more difficult for them to digest. But wait, there's more: tuition actually counts as "state revenue" and thus, when tuition rises, it counts towards the state revenue limits, meaning in effect that tuition raises tend to mandate declines in state support for higher ed. That's what I meant by the term "Orwellian."
historiann said…
Paul--I'm with you entirely, and await the bad news that's surely on its way up in Fort Collins.

One thing too I'd like to point out that's surely part of the reasons that higher ed costs so much more these days is that people expect so much more from colleges and universities than they did even 15 or 20 years ago. Investments in computer technology, electronically accessed databases, and a whole apparatus of counselors in offices of student life who are dispatched to deal with the problems that both students and their parents have--these things are totally new cost centers for most universities, and they're now considered just basic services that universities must offer. While fancy gyms and dorms take a lot of heat, and they're probably due for some, I think these other factors are more important.

One thing I want to ask Gov. Ritter: That parking lot CSU ripped up behind my building? If that new classroom building is on the list of suspended construction projects, can we have our old parking lot back?