A February 27 Denver Post editorial and a related article on Colorado higher education funding were frustrating in an amazing number of ways. Both barely touched upon the single most important issue: Our higher education funding levels are not sustainable.
In 2008, before the current crisis, Colorado ranked 48th in the nation in per pupil funding. Since then our funding level has dropped. As the February 24th School of Public Affairs event (Ungovernable States: Prospects for Constitutional Reform in California and Colorado) made clear, at the present rate within 10 years the entire general fund will be spent on K-12, health care and corrections, leaving no funding whatsoever for higher education. Without that context, the rest of the conversation is, at best, misleading.
I sure hope this is the first salvo in a longer campaign by our leadership to discuss the value of higher education with Colorado taxpayers. But inaccurately characterizing the system as inefficient and suggesting that competition is bad for government seems like a foolish way to start the conversation. How about a proactive discussion about how to make competition spur improvements in our system, or how our higher education institutions serve our communities, or what we as a state need from higher education?
I wonder why this story even made the paper. Is this the best thinking we can expect to get from leaders in our state?
The chair of the Higher Education Steering Committee Dick Montfort is quoted saying, “Maybe not all the business classes are going to be at one university, I get that, but we’ve got to come up with ideas. My biggest frustration is that no one wants to change.”
The reality is we are going to get change whether we like it or not. But does he or the editorial board of the Post honestly believe increased efficiency can get us out of this funding mess? This is like focusing on a burnt-out headlight when the engine is shot.
Efficiency is important. Heck, we are already efficient, graduating more students than the U.S. average while spending less. (See www.higheredinfo.org for information on Colorado relative to other states.) But what is the use of efficiency when the ability of the system to meet the needs of all students is in peril?
As a conversation about efficiency, this one seemed particularly empty. Efficiency has two components: How much you spend and how much you get in return. This argument was mostly about numbers of programs (as a proxy for how much we spend) and had very little about what we get from those programs. One output cited was the small number of math and biology majors at Adams State College. Does that mean we should seriously consider shutting down the math or biology departments at Adams State? Do we believe that students can get an adequate college education in, say, business or teacher training without mathematics and biology?
Finally, I question the whole premise that having multiple programs compete in one geographic area is inherently inefficient. We have learned from initiatives in the K-12 arena that competition leads to innovation and makes consumers happy. We have also learned that to support improvements through competition, we need to provide good information to consumers and sophisticated tools for evaluating programs.
The debate about duplicate programs is a red herring being tossed into a pool of sharks (one of several red herrings the Post has tossed out lately on education funding). It makes for titillating headlines, but ultimately misleads Coloradans about the crisis we face.
I expect more from our state’s leadership than leading us down a dead end that cannot possibly solve the critical problems of a higher education system that has been starved for funds for nearly two decades.
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