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Colorado Higher Education Strained By Pandemic Budget Cuts Turn To State Capitol For Funding

Duane Physical Laboratories Complex, University of Colorado, Boulder.
Ken Lund
CC BY-SA 2.0
Duane Physical Laboratories Complex, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Colorado’s higher education institutions have remained flexible to operational changes during this COVID-19 pandemic to balance student needs with health and safety. After one year, a combination of masks, social distancing, falling COVID-19 cases and the state’s ongoing vaccine rollout have administrators planning for more in-person courses this fall.

Yet revenue losses from decreased student enrollment and state cuts to higher education funding continue creating major financial complications for Colorado’s public universities. Board members at the University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State University, and the University of Colorado Boulder each elected to keep tuition level for the 2020-2021 school year. Now, all three schools are considering raising student tuition and fees to account for budget shortfalls and increased operational costs.

Henry Sobanet is the chief financial officer for the Colorado State University System. He said the pandemic has created huge revenue losses, but as a major employer in the Fort Collins and Pueblo communities they’re getting creative to avoid cutting jobs.

“Our board and our executive team wanted to make sure we didn’t make the economic impact of the downturn worse, by sending more people into the community without resources and losing their jobs,” Sobanet said.

In contrast, CU Boulder made a series of pay reductions and furloughs early in the pandemic to offset increased costs. In a January letter to faculty and staff, chief operating officer Patrick O’Rourke said they are prioritizing ending those cuts, but the projected budget is between $30 million and $48 million short of costs.

UNC President Andy Feinstein said in a February board meeting he is mindful of the impact a tuition hike could have on students. Board members are evaluating a 7% increase on undergraduate tuition through May and will announce a decision in June.

Last year, Colorado lawmakers cut $493 million in higher education funding. Gov. Jared Polis and House and Senate leaders have said they value restoring the 58% budget cut.

In the past, state officials have routinely cut funding for higher ed during economic recessions and it’s never returned. The cuts, according to Chalkbeat, could lead to lower graduation rates and fewer instructors, counselors and career guidance while also raising tuition. This has led Colorado to have some of the lowest funded and most expensive public colleges and universities in the nation.

In response, every public university in the state came together this month to form the Colorado Trustee Network, an organization focused on advocating for higher education. The group is focused on issues including state funding, educational equity gaps, and aligning education with workforce opportunities to strengthen the economy.

In a statement, the organization said, “Effective advocacy is needed if we want a more vibrant system of higher education in Colorado. Colorado’s students, businesses, economy, and democracy all rely on and benefit from a thriving, well-funded and strategically aligned system of higher education. “

Schools budget planning will largely take place early this summer and they are expecting a decision from the state soon. Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee is scheduled to consider expanding funding for higher education Tuesday, March 9.

The following week, CTN will host a virtual panel including administrators from Western Colorado University, the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Colorado system discussing equity in Colorado’s funding formula March 16.