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.
Of those, Colorado's voucher proposal - or, as they're technically referred to, "college opportunity funds" - is the most unusual. It would change the funding stream so instead of going directly to the universities, a certain amount - about $2,500 - would go to individual students to take to the college of their choice. Schools would no longer technically be state funded and could apply for "enterprise" status, freeing them from TABOR's limits on tuition hikes - a change administrators hope might mobilize Colorado families.
"We create a new army of lobbyists," says Stephen Golding, CU's vice president for budget and finance. "It's no longer this amorphous cut to the institution of higher education - now it's individual youngsters feeling the impacts of cuts, parents seeing greater value in state support to higher ed."
But some worry vouchers will make public institutions less public - or open the door for public money to go to private schools. And the bill limits the number of credit hours the vouchers will cover.
CU President Betsy Hoffman is strongly behind the measure, but sees it as a short-term solution until voters approve changes to TABOR and Amendment 23. "It gives the amendment process a chance to work before instigating the kind of draconian cuts that were suggested," she says.
Over the past two years, Colorado has cut $173 million, or 23 percent, from its higher education funds. For CU, which has lost about a third of its total state funds, that's meant that a lot more than fat has had to go. The Boulder campus, with its attractive blond-brick buildings nestled beneath the Flatirons, still attracts students nationwide, but they are starting to see signs of the budget strain.
Richard Murray notices it in the people sitting in the aisles of his classes - 400 will be admitted into a class designed for 350, he says. The philosophy and political science major has had friends delay graduation because they couldn't get the courses they needed. He'll graduate this spring, on time, only because when the school canceled his philosophy of law class, he persuaded a professor to do it as an independent study.
But Mr. Murphy, one of CU's three student presidents, says that the big concern he hears about from fellow students is tuition. "I know a lot of low- income students paying their way through college, and a 40 percent tuition hike would inhibit their going to any institution at all."
The budget crisis is a big topic among CU's faculty, too. Professors have been laid off, some degree programs - like German and geology at CU's Denver campus - have been cut, salaries are frozen, and some faculty are considering leaving.
"You try to get a pencil from the administrative assistant in charge of supplies, and she wants to know if you have another one," says Barbara Bintliff, chair of the Boulder Faculty Assembly.
Professor Bintliff, like Murray, worries that vouchers, long term, would hurt the university. But of the proposed tuition hikes (which Gov. Bill Owens has already said he will veto if they get to his desk), she says, "We're balancing the state higher education budget on the back of kids."
For now, she says, "It's just an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. What is going on?"