Having spent much of my career in higher education — first with the Colorado community colleges and most recently as chair of the Board of Governors of the Colorado State University System — I worry a great deal about the cost of higher education for today’s students.
This spring, colleges and universities across Colorado are weighing how tuition increases will impact the balance between student access and institutional quality, a delicate equilibrium that is — and must continue to be — one of our most pressing concerns.
The CSU System was founded on the revolutionary belief that children of the working class benefit from education, and that society benefits from what these educated citizens bring to the world. Our commitment to providing an education to anyone who can benefit from it, no matter their background, has created remarkable innovations and helped drive our economy.
In recent years, however, the burden of paying for higher education has shifted from society as a whole to students and families. Twenty years ago, the state of Colorado paid more than two-thirds of the cost of educating a student at CSU; today the state pays less than one-third. This has spurred a troubling perception of higher education as a commodity, a personal benefit only to the students who seek it. A great system of public higher education, however, benefits all of society, and I believe we must do all we can to provide a ladder up for students from all walks of life.
In Fort Collins, for instance, we’ve held the cost of educating a student (resident tuition plus state funding, adjusted for inflation) steady for the past 20 years. We’ve increased need-based financial aid 158 percent in the last five years — and we’ve focused on getting students the classes they need to graduate on time. Today, 77 percent of CSU students who graduate do so in 4½ years.
CSU-Global Campus is one of those rare institutions that doesn’t charge student fees, because it’s an online campus. In addition to providing a tuition guarantee, the university hasn’t increased its tuition in four years because of its commitment to remain accessible to working professionals.
At CSU-Pueblo, 80 percent of students receive some form of financial aid, and special assistance is offered to help students with debt and financial management. The university has launched a new merit-based scholarship program and provides additional financial assistance to students living on campus.
As a governing board, we work hard to guarantee that we are good stewards of the public trust. We closely monitor program and administrative costs, and set policies that align our fiscal decisions with our strategic priorities. We review measures of educational quality and institutional productivity, and continuously seek ways to share costs between institutions, thus boosting efficiencies. At all three campuses, we use technology as a tool to improve learning opportunities and outcomes and achieve cost savings.
Thankfully, we are seeing renewed public investment in higher education. Over the last two years, the governor and legislature increased funding support for Colorado colleges and universities. In response, our board has approved some of the lowest tuition increases in years. We are absolutely committed to preserving affordable access to CSU schools while also protecting and enhancing the CSU System as a state asset with thoughtful investments in facilities, infrastructure, and faculty. While this balance is sometimes difficult to manage, it is a responsibility we embrace.
Next fall, we’ll welcome to our campuses thousands of new students who have earned their access to educational opportunity, and are depending on us to keep it affordable and of high quality. We are proud that the CSU System schools return excellent value for the money that our state and students invest.