Colleges Face Spare Changes ; like Many States, Colorado Wants to Trim Its Budget - Even as Record Numbers of Students Opt for College. Who Will Foot the Bill?

Article excerpt

The University of Colorado has been garnering a lot of headlines lately, and they're not the sort that make a college president happy. Nationally, the school has become synonymous with football- recruiting scandals. Allegations of sexual assaults at recruiting parties there sparked a congressional investigation, strict new rules, and talk of recruiting changes nationwide.

But within Colorado, the school has also been at the center of another crisis: a budget squeeze so bad that, if things continue on their current track, the school could end up with no state support by 2010. It's the school's worst situation since the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan controlled the legislature and threatened to cut CU's funds completely unless the school fired Jewish and Catholic faculty.

Last week, the state's Joint Budget Committee called for a 40 percent tuition hike at CU and Colorado State University, along with a $70 million cut in state funds. The universities and governor, meanwhile, favor legislation making Colorado the first state to offer in-state students a form of higher-ed vouchers.

Budget woes and the intricacies of state tax policies may not make for very juicy reading compared to rape, drunken bashes, and a coach's gaffes. For the students and parents in the state, however, the fiscal crisis - and the proposed solutions - could have a much more far-reaching effect than the new 11 p.m. curfew for football recruits.

It's an issue that - for Colorado and many states - gets to the heart of questions that loom large in the decade ahead: How public should public higher education be, and how much do Americans value it?

"We're on a kind of collision course in the country," says Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif., noting that along with the higher-ed cuts, many states are seeing big increases in the number of high school grads. "Every generation since the GI Bill has been better educated than the one before it. Now we're living in an economy that really demands better-educated people, and yet that's the very time where our commitment to educate the next generation seems to be more problematic."

Colorado's particular collision course is in many ways a disaster of its own making. A "taxpayer bill of rights," or TABOR, was approved by voters in 1992 to limit the size and growth of government. Under TABOR's strict provisions, state revenues can't grow more than inflation plus population growth of the prior year - a formula to which college tuition is also held - and voter approval is needed for any tax increase.

During the recent recession years, TABOR caused what many refer to as the "ratcheting down" effect - state revenues

declined, but growth was still limited.

Meanwhile, the Gallagher Amendment, passed in 1982, severely limits property-tax growth. And Amendment 23, approved in 2000, mandates increased spending each year on K-12 education.

It all converges to make Colorado "a cautionary tale" for "states that try to tie too many hands behind their backs," says Travis Reindl, at the Association of State Colleges and Universities.

But Colorado is hardly alone. For legislators desperate to balance budgets, higher education typically offers their single biggest discretionary item, and many public schools are suffering as a result. Many, like Colorado, are floating plans that would quasi- privatize their institutions. …