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
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
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
"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. …