Strategic Goal 4

Invest in Affordability and Innovation

The preceding three goals in this master plan are an economic necessity and must be a state priority. The stakes are high. We must increase attainment, erase attainment gaps and improve student success if Coloradans want to maintain a strong quality of life, meet workforce demands and continue to have a vibrant economy.

But these goals are only achievable with increased public investment. Colorado must invest in this critical public good. Declining affordability will continue to constrain enrollment and keep us from reaching our attainment goal. Moreover, the students we must focus on to increase attainment— whether they are first-generation, lowincome, minority, adult or from other underserved populations—are those most likely to come from backgrounds where they lack traditional support systems and thus require increased services to succeed.

History has shown us that increased investment will yield powerful dividends. It is no coincidence that the U.S. economy grew exponentially following the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 that greatly expanded access to higher education for all Americans, and again after the post-war bills further expanded education opportunities. And yet in the face of this historical evidence, the state has consistently disinvested in higher education over the past 15 years.

Instead, the increasing costs of higher education have been financed through rising tuition. Since the 2012 CCHE master plan was issued, tuition at four-year colleges in Colorado grew 38 percent, while median income grew by only 13 percent.

The result of the state’s disinvestment in higher education is that students and families today bear a far-greater proportion of the total costs of education than they did a decade ago. In 2000, the state funded two-thirds of a student’s cost of higher education, while the student was responsible for one-third. By 2016, that ratio had flipped and the state now funds only one-third. Despite some increases in state support for higher education, state funding per pupil is below where we were 15 years ago. We have made little progress in reversing the burden on students and families.

History has shown us that increased investment will yield powerful dividends.

Today, over 60 percent of students enrolled at public institutions graduate with debt.

With students having to shoulder more of the cost of an education comes increased student loan debt. Today, over 60 percent of students enrolled at public institutions graduate with debt. The average debt is $25,877 for a bachelor’s degree and $13,374 for an associate degree.1 The CCHE recognizes that debt itself is not necessarily bad—loans allow students of all socioeconomic demographics to continue education beyond high school. However, too many Colorado students are assuming more debt than they can reasonably handle or they end up in default without a postsecondary certificate or degree. Even if students obtain a credential, an overly burdensome debt can prevent them from purchasing a home, getting access to other credit and climbing the economic ladder.

This fourth goal—a precondition to meeting the three preceding goals—assumes a model of shared responsibility among the state, the institutions, and students and their families. Each has a role that will contribute to affordability, and through affordability, to increased attainment.

Our institutions have done well at maintaining quality in the face of constrained budgets. They are using innovative delivery and management approaches and new revenue streams. Our own analysis shows that our institutions spend less than what would be expected on salaries and related costs relative to peers around the country.2 And they have implemented many of the strategies discussed under the third goal that reduce the cost of education to the student, most notably strategies designed to shorten the time-to-degree. Institutions need the flexibility to explore innovative models, while still providing accountability.

The commission believes that students and families have done their part and are paying at their limit. State-by-state comparisons and affordability studies suggest that we are very near the point of pricing many of our own students out of any opportunity for higher education.3 At the same time, students and families have the responsibility to be informed and understand the consequences of the decisions they make. Taking advantage of credit-earning programs during high school shortens time-to-degree and lessens cost; transferring and changing majors lengthens the time and increases cost. In short, the longer a student takes to complete, the more it costs the student and the institution.

With institutions and students doing their part, the state must recognize that it is in Colorado’s interest to maintain affordability through increased investment. To be clear, the CCHE recommends increased public investment as a means to maintain and increase affordability and to accelerate attainment.

Too often, higher education is perceived as a private good, and therefore a discretionary expense, considered after other public services. We do not suggest that public safety, health care and K-12 education are a lesser priority. Rather, we suggest that the state should not view these competing areas as a zero-sum game. Higher education is a public good. Increasing our investment today will result in far greater gains to our communities and our economy, resulting in a larger pie for all.

Conversely, the state cannot afford the costs to our communities and Colorado of not investing. The correlation between decreased educational attainment and unemployment, crime, poor health and an increased dependence on social services is indisputable. The cost of education is high, but the cost of disinvesting is much higher and we believe too expensive a price for the state to bear.

The cost of education is high, but the cost of disinvesting is much higher and we believe too expensive a price for the state to bear.

  1. Colorado Department of Higher Education, Financial Aid Report 2015-2016.
  2. NCHEMS Cost Study
  3. Institute for Higher Education Policy, Limited Means Limited Options: College Remains Unaffordable for Many Americans, March 2017