- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Recruiters for Colorado’s state colleges are hustling to sign up current students and high school graduates as the nation’s first market-oriented tuition-voucher system begins this fall.

Colorado is the first state to abandon direct funding to its 13 community colleges, three state universities and six other public colleges — currently, $500 million a year — in favor of a $2,400 tuition voucher to each enrolled college student.

“It’s going to drive changes and force reform, which is what we want,” said Richard F. O’Donnell, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE). “Students have ownership over their tax dollars in an explicit way, which we think will motivate those changes.”

About 140,000 students have already applied to the College Opportunity Fund for the $2,400 tuition vouchers for the 2005-06 academic year, Mr. O’Donnell said.

To make state colleges whole financially under the new funding system, “we need 180,000 [enrolled students],” he said. “High school seniors are now making their final decisions about college.”

In the background is vibrant competition among the state’s community colleges, attended by more than 117,000 students, and the state’s elite four-year universities that also attract thousands of out-of-state undergraduate and graduate students.

It’s what locals call the “Colorado Paradox.”

The state ranks No. 1 nationally in the percentage of people over age 25 with college degrees — many having moved to the state to live, work and go to college.

But Colorado also ranks 27th among states with just 39 percent of its own high school freshmen eventually going to college, and 41st among states for students of low-income and minority families making it to college.

The University of Colorado, with its main campus in Boulder and two other campuses in Denver and Colorado Springs, has 50,000-plus students. Colorado State University at Fort Collins and Pueblo has 25,000 students, and the Colorado School of Mines at Golden, a renowned engineering and science university, has 3,600 students.

State-directed funding to colleges and universities is “nameless, faceless,” said Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System. “Now you’ve got a face on all these dollars,” and all colleges in the state “will increasingly have to put the focus on students, or they’ll leave.”

Hank Brown, retired U.S. senator and the University of Colorado’s incoming president, said the new financing scheme will benefit most of the state’s current and potential college students “because it becomes much more apparent” that community colleges “are a more cost-effective alternative” for most Colorado residents to the larger state universities.

“Over time, bigger more prestigious universities will go with higher tuition increases” to make up funding shortfalls, Mr. Brown said. “So [the state college voucher legislation] injected some market forces that didn’t exist in the past.”

The tuition-voucher program also sidesteps Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (Tabor), a 1992 constitutional amendment that limited state revenue growth and spending by state agencies, including state-funded colleges.

Under Tabor, college funding was cut 21 percent over the past four years, and average tuition at state colleges increased by 37 percent since 2000.

William J. Moloney, state education commissioner, said the voucher program already has had a big impact on Colorado’s secondary schools, which must now provide the names and addresses of all eighth-graders to the state’s commission for higher education so they can receive information about college entrance requirements.

The new state scheme will give community colleges the same level of state funding — $2,400 per student — or more if they retain their students and increase enrollment at the current pace.

Four-year public schools were previously getting a $4,500 state subsidy for each student, and the $2,100-per-student reduction will be made up with a new state “fee-for-service” contract add-on, said Jason L. Hopfer, CCHE legislative director.

The state agency will contract with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center for medicine, nursing and dentistry education; with Colorado State University for veterinary medicine education; and with the Colorado School of Mines for engineering and science education, Mr. Hopfer said.

Community colleges and state universities also would get additional state “fee-for-service” contract funds for remedial education needed by high school graduates, he said.

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