Pandemic, Strained Economy Threaten Higher Ed In Colorado
Angie Paccione, fresh off a weekly call with university presidents across Colorado, summed up the state of higher education in the midst of a pandemic, an economic recession and a reckoning with lifetimes worth of racial inequities: It's a "cacophony of crises."
Colorado university leaders are trying to plan for a safe return to campus later this summer amid a public health crisis that demands their proposals receive constant reevaluation, all while knowing enrollment is likely to decline, unexpected pandemic-related costs will climb and the state's famously low higher-education funding has been slashed — again.
Will students and staff returning to Colorado's colleges and universities spread the virus at a rate that forces campuses to close their classrooms as they did in the spring? Will employees — many facing pay cuts, furloughs and their own fears of contracting the coronavirus — be able to deliver a college experience that students consider worthy of their tuition dollars?
Unknowns abound, but a looming worry plagues Paccione, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Next year will be even worse.
"The hit we are taking this year will pale in terms of next year," Paccione said. "This year, we were able to get a significant amount of support from the federal government… and that really saved higher ed in Colorado. Without that influx of dollars… there would have been no way for us to survive. We don't know if we're going to have that kind of assistance next year. We're begging for it."
The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on Colorado's higher education system, which has long been one of the first on the chopping block when the state cuts budgets. Trying to rectify a $3.3 billion coronavirus-shaped hole in the state budget, legislators shaved $493 million from the upcoming year's higher ed budget. Gov. Jared Polis sutured that wound with $450 million of federal CARES Act money that he issued to public colleges and universities, to be used for pandemic-associated costs.
University leaders and higher ed experts agonize over how long the stitches will hold and what will become of academic institutions if they bust.
"The cuts… will particularly affect the institutions with the lowest wealth, and I'm talking about community colleges and public regional universities," said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. "Those institutions are absolutely critical portals of opportunity for a first-generation student, low income students and students of color."
"Potentially cripple our institutions"
Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, oversees 13 colleges with 40 campus locations spread across the state. The system is bracing for an overall 8.7% enrollment decrease this year as students waffle over paying for an education that looks vastly different from the campus brochure.
The community colleges will spend an estimated $9.6 million on COVID-related costs by the end of this fiscal year.
Garcia called the state funding hit paired with the projected enrollment loss "the double whammy" — a force powerful enough to alter higher education in Colorado for years to come without financial intervention.
"The cut in state funding and the loss in tuition revenue would potentially cripple our institutions in Colorado," Garcia said. "If you look at some of our very small schools, our small community colleges, losing even 50 students is huge. What it really means is they can't close the doors without the state saying they can. But they would have to so dramatically curtail the programs and services they offer that it would be hard for them to be effective."
If state revenues and enrollments don't bounce back dramatically by next year, Garcia said, the community college system will start looking at significant budget cuts, particularly impacting employees.
Cuts to the system's budget could mean less financial aid for the neediest students, fewer student support services like tutoring and, potentially, a reduction in courses offered, Garcia said.
Kelly Shanley, 31, found the Community College of Denver through the nonprofit organization Warren Village after a divorce left her a single mother of two struggling to pay the rent. The opportunity to earn a degree, Shanley said, has been life-changing.
"CCD has become my second home," said Shanley, who earned a degree in communications and is now finishing an associate of science degree. "The support the faculty and students provide to students is phenomenal. That's what scares me. Any support services that might lose funding — the ones that support students like me — worries me the most. What about the students just starting now who need those like I did? Because I made the choice to commit to CCD, and to myself and my future, I am finally on the path that I'm truly meant to be on."
One bright spot for Colorado college students: most public universities in the state are keeping tuition flat for the 2020-2021 academic year in response to pandemic-related economic hardships, according to a University of Colorado budget presentation.
Community College of Denver's tuition and fees for 30 credit hours increased about 3% from last year, from $5,615 to $5,795. The Denver community college is one of the most inexpensive options for a secondary degree in the state. Comparatively, CU Boulder's tuition and fees remained almost unchanged from last year, hovering near $12,500 for the same amount of credit hours.
CU's systemwide budget for the next academic year is taking a $250 million hit from last year, dipping from $4.79 billion to $4.54 billion for its four campuses, largely due to the financial impacts of the new coronavirus.
"If you know you're in a recession and things are likely going to be bad for a time that's one thing, but when you have budget difficulties coupled with massive uncertainties in terms of what the whole higher ed experience is going to look like, it's doubly difficult," said Ken McConnellogue, CU system spokesman.
To help offset the financial strain, all campuses and the CU system office are subject to employee furloughs, hiring delays and leaving open positions unfilled. More than 7,700 employees across the CU system will be affected, saving more than $104.8 million.
Todd Saliman, CU's chief financial officer, said managing this year's budget has been the most difficult of his career.
"The budget, on paper, is just a spreadsheet, but it's really people and programs and it pays for what we do," Saliman said. "We are very sensitive to the fact that when we talk about budget options, what we're really talking about are programs for students and jobs for our faculty and students and compensation and benefits and deferred maintenance and all those things. The choices might sound easy on a spreadsheet, but when you start talking about the people and students impacted, you have to think really carefully, which is what we're doing."
"Never let a good crisis pass"
In November, Polis admitted tuition costs in Colorado have "spiraled out of control."
Twenty years ago, Colorado covered 68% of the cost of a student's higher education, with the student responsible for 32% of the bill. By 2012, following the Great Recession, those percentages had flipped, leaving students and families footing two-thirds of the cost of their higher education and the state chipping in a third, according to a 2019 report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Paccione is concerned another recession will further shift that burden onto students, hindering college access to those who may most benefit from it.
But some Coloradans argue higher education decision-makers are not without fault for the mess they're in now.
Jessica Peck, who has advised statewide political campaigns on higher education finance issues, said one of the biggest problems within Colorado's higher education system is a lack of cohesive statewide strategy, which leaves colleges and universities to compete for status, students and money.
"All these institutions are out there vying for their own with their own lobbyists, PR teams and a lot of money wasted within that advocacy for dollars," Peck said. "What we're seeing increasingly is each institution is staffed by ambitious, intelligent people who want their institution to be the very best in the state, and that is admirable, but there is no statewide gut-check that says when these institutions look in the mirror, is this the role you're supposed to be playing?"
Tom Lucero, who served on CU's elected Board of Regents from 1999 to 2011, said institutions have been increasing tuition for years, escalating expenses for building construction and fostering competition among higher education institutions resulting in overlapping programs to attract students.
"As the old saying in politics goes, never let a good crisis pass," Lucero said. "Right now, there are huge opportunities in reform and restructuring. Now would be the time to move quickly and not just muddle through this and then look back 20 years later to realize we missed a huge opportunity because higher education doesn't like to talk about significant, meaningful reform."
Reform could be on the horizon. Polis recently signed a new bill into law, expected to go into effect for the 2021-2022 school year, that shifts the state higher education funding allocation model from primarily doling out money based on enrollment to also considering how well an institution serves its students, according to Chalkbeat Colorado.
"We know we'll survive"
Adams State University touts being the most affordable residential degree in Colorado, with in-state undergraduate tuition and fees just below $4,800 for 2020-2021 — a 1% increase from the prior year. Adams State guarantees all qualified students who graduate from a San Luis Valley high school or from one in 14 southern Colorado counties will receive grants to cover their tuition and fees.
Adams State President Cheryl Lovell has been tracking the unexpected costs incurred due to the pandemic, but she said her notepad was running out of space.
Costs such as massive hand-sanitizing stations spread throughout campus and COVID-19 testing are estimated to total around $5 million, Lovell said. Not to mention, many Colorado universities are finding remote learning actually costs more to pull off, despite conceptions to the contrary.
"There are increased technology costs," Garcia of CCCS said. "We've spent lots and lots and lots of money training faculty on online instruction. You still want faculty to be able to interact with students, so you have to try to keep classes the same. Plus, our buildings and our campuses are still there, so there are fixed costs. We aren't seeing savings."
Adams State has been steadily climbing out of financial turmoil from years past, only to face a new beast.
"We know we'll survive," Lovell said. "We have to. Our valley, our region depends on us. We're an economic driver for some 9,000 square miles. We know there are students in the region where it's not a case of 'Do I come to Adams State?' For some, it's 'If I don't go to Adams, I won't go to college at all.' "
Vanessa Thong, 20, grew up in Alamosa and considered going elsewhere for college, but a full ride to Adams State was too convincing to pass up.
"I made the right decision," said Thong, a psychology major who wants to become a counselor. "They've built a community here. They support local businesses. Because it's not a school in the big city, they put on these events and make this smaller, more rural school a fun place to go, and it just feels very connected to the valley. But I am scared for Adams State, knowing the budget cuts and everything."
Smaller institutions like Adams State lack the hefty endowments of larger flagship universities — CU Boulder's is $1.8 billion — and often don't have as many wealthy alumni who donate massive gifts to their alma maters, Lovell said.
To help balance the budget, Lovell said Adams State will not be filling 18 campus positions and plans to merge certain academic programs that once stood on their own. Adams State is looking into adjusting the percentage of cost it covers for employee health insurance premiums and implementing a two-year temporary reduction in its contribution to employee non-PERA pension plans, among other cost-cutting initiatives.
"We serve the students many universities overlook, and we serve them well," Lovell said. "We're the epicenter for activity in the valley. Adams State's fiscal outlook is going to be a struggle as it is for any institution in this crisis, but we will belt tighten. We will rethink the way we spend money. Our community depends on us."
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