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Colorado Students Are Paying More For College While State Pays Less

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Students are shouldering more of the cost of earning a degree from a public college or university. That's according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The report found state funding for public two and four-year colleges has decreased by more than $6.6 billion over the past decade while students are paying more.

Colorado Edition co-host Henry Zimmerman spoke with KUNC's Stephanie Daniel to discuss the report and its findings.

HENRY ZIMMERMAN: So, this report compares costs from 2008, before the Great Recession hit, to 2018 and it looks at two factors: state funding for higher education and published tuition prices. Now, the report includes data from every state — how does Colorado compare?

STEPHANIE DANIEL: First let's go back about 40 years. I spoke to Michael Mitchell who co-authored the report and he said in the late eighties, tuition accounted for about 25% of funding for public higher education and states paid the rest. But today, nationally, the split in costs is almost 50-50. So students and their parents are paying more to attend college.

This material was created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (

Now how do these two factors, state funding and tuition costs, play out here? Colorado has only seen about a 10% decline in state funding over the past decade. That's compared to the national average of 13%. So, Colorado has actually had a slightly smaller decline. But on the other hand, the cost of attendance shot up. From 2008 to 2018 published tuition, which doesn't include other costs like food, housing or books, increased by almost 70%. Nationally that number is only up 37%.

Here's what Mitchell had to say.

So, we have seen an additional shift in Colorado where we're expecting students and families from tuition to be footing a much greater proportion of the bill than we expect kind of from a shared investment of Coloradans.

DANIEL: I do want to note that while state funding does remain lower than pre-recession amounts, some states have begun to reinvest in higher education over the past couple years. Per-pupil funding actually rose above pre-recession levels in 2008 in nine states, including the largest increases in Illinois, North Dakota and Wyoming. But this list does not include Colorado.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The previous paragraph has been updated to clarify that the qualifier of funding above pre-recession levels was used for the nine states referenced above.

ZIMMERMAN: As you mentioned, families and students now pay more to attend college. But wage growth and household earnings haven't really kept up with increasing tuition. So, this means a higher percent of household income is going to higher education costs?

DANIEL: Exactly. Mitchell says there are two factors at play here. One, more students of color and low-income students are attending college and two, there are wage and earning disparities between minority and white employees. He says that means the higher cost of college disproportionately affects families of color:

We're asking households, particularly African American, Hispanic households, Native American households as well that either don't have access to high incomes on average or don't have the kind of wealth that's needed to afford college to foot that larger share of the bill. So, you can see across states as a share of household income, when you look at by race, that those costs that are associated with college make up a much larger share of that take home pay.

This material was created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (

DANIEL: In 2017 the average share of Coloradans' household income that went towards paying for a four-year college degree was 24%. For black and Hispanic families that number was 32%.

Now, the report also says that states can do more to ensure college affordability and accessibility. One recommendation is to strengthen need-based financial aid programs.

ZIMMERMAN: Speaking of affordability and accessibility, the report also looks at what states are doing to help immigrant and refugees residents attend college. Where does Colorado stand there?

DANIEL: Twenty-one states and D.C. have inclusive higher education policies for immigrants, which means they offer in-state tuition and financial aid regardless of immigration status. This group does include Colorado. Also, in 2018 the state legislature passed a law that allows refugees and special immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition. And last year Colorado Mountain College launched a program that provides funding for undocumented students and others who are not eligible to receive federal financial aid.

This material was created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (

These policies are important because the majority of jobs in Colorado now require some type of postsecondary education.

ZIMMERMAN: Stephanie, thanks for breaking it down.

DANIEL: Thanks for having me.

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Oct. 29. Listen to the full episode here.

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
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