Budget cuts shifting tuition burden to families

President Obama focused welcome attention in his State of the Union address on the rising cost of a college education and the need to both expand federal financial aid and hold institutions accountable for affordability and student success. For a land-grant university like Colorado State — created to ensure broad educational access for people at all income levels — this is a core element of our mission, and we welcome the chance to participate in a national conversation about access and accountability.

At $6,307 in annual resident tuition, the cost to attend CSU is below the average cost of comparable institutions around the country. CSU students graduate with a total student-loan debt load that is well below the national average, cut their risk of unemployment by more than half, and increase their lifetime earnings – returning nearly $10 to the state for each $1 invested in their education.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Like institutions across the country, we’ve seen dramatic increases in the demand for student aid, as families struggle in the face of economic hardship and the realization that a college degree is increasingly a requirement for entry into the workforce. About 74 percent of CSU students receive financial aid today — up from 63 percent just five years ago. Of our incoming resident students this past fall, 24 percent are Pell Grant-eligible (very low income).

Public universities essentially have two sources of funds with which to educate students. The first is state support from tax dollars that we all chip in, under the theory that we are all better off with qualified teachers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, engineers, accountants, etc. (This investment also benefits us in the form of faculty research that generates new industries and jobs — CSU has licensed 136 technologies to private enterprise since 2007 and has created 20 new start-up companies in the last five years.)

The second source is tuition. (The university has many other fund sources, but they’re generally restricted to a specific use, such as research funds and private gifts for scholarships.) If state support declines, the university has the option of cutting costs, raising tuition, or a combination.

At CSU, we’ve had a strong focus on cost containment that has served us well, but efficiency and cost-cutting aren’t enough to keep student costs down.  In actuality, we educate a student at CSU — in inflation-adjusted dollars — for about the same amount we did 20 years ago. But tuition has risen as the state has scaled back its support, shifting the burden to students and their families. Twenty years ago, a Colorado student paid about one-third of the total cost of a CSU education, and the state paid two-thirds. Now the state covers just a third of the cost of an average in-state student’s education, and families and students pay more.

Today, state funding for CSU is about $94 million — out of a total university budget of nearly $900 million — a cut of $36 million over the past three years. This tax year, the average Colorado family making $100,000 will pay about $365 in taxes to fund our state’s colleges and universities – compared to $1,400 for K-12 education, $990 for health care and human services, and $450 for Corrections and the judicial system.

CSU’s donors and alumni have taken seriously the challenge to keep education affordable. They’ve stepped up through The Campaign for Colorado State University, which just reached its $500 million goal more than six months early, providing financial assistance for students in real need. Efforts include our Commitment to Colorado program for Colorado residents and the creation of special grants for students who are close to completing their degree but might be forced to withdraw for financial reasons. At our recent announcement of the completion of the campaign, we were thrilled to be able to say that we raised more than $59 million for scholarships, resulting in the awarding of more than 15,000 scholarships and the creation of more than 485 new scholarship funds. Still, the demand continues to grow, as more and more students enter higher education with greater levels of need.

As the president of Colorado State, I’m pleased to be able to say that CSU remains an excellent value proposition for students seeking a top-quality, research university education at a reasonable price.

But I also share President Obama’s serious concern about the trends we’re seeing as a nation in college funding and affordability. Our nation’s prosperity throughout the latter half of the 20th century had much to do with expanded participation in public higher education — and the highly skilled, educated workforce fostered through our shared investment. 

Continuing to shift away this shared investment, as a society, without a public discussion has important, long-term national policy implications and I encourage all in our community to engage in the conversation.

For more information about CSU’s budgets, expenses, and efforts to increase efficiency, I invite you to view our newest Financial Accountability Report online at http://www.president.colostate.edu/

Frank is the president of Colorado State University.


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