Colorado Considers Vouchers For Higher Education


Texas and Minnesota have flirted with the idea, but Colorado will be the first state to make a serious run at a voucher system for college students

A task force appointed by Gov. Bill Owens (R) will recommend in January that the state take nearly $635 million now distributed to public colleges and universities and give that money to students to pay for tuition at state colleges and universities.

If approved, Colorado would have the first voucher-like plan for higher education.

But the state takes great pains to avoid the V word. "It's not truly a voucher," said Joan Ringel, spokeswoman for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, which has been working with the blue ribbon panel on recommendations. A typical voucher for K-12, she said, allows students to use public money to attend private schools. The Colorado higher ed proposal would only allow Colorado students to use the money at public colleges and universities, including community colleges.

"Plus, there is the political baggage" associated with the term "vouchers," Ringel said. For now, the task force is using "college savings account," rather than voucher and is working with a focus group to come up with a term.

Under the Colorado proposal, full-time undergraduate students would be eligible for state money of $4,000 a year. The state would continue to provide money for a student's education up to 140 credit hours, totaling $18,000. Graduate students would be eligible for $8,000 in state funds for up to 60 credit hours.

"There's a good chance of it getting approved," Ringel said. Two key Republican lawmakers specifically Republican majority leaders Rep. Keith King and Sen. Norma Anderson -- have promised to push the plan in the statehouse. Gov. Owens has held off formally endorsing the proposal until he sees the final product, but many observers expect him to rally for it.

A major goal of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Higher Education for the 21st Century is to persuade more Coloradoans to go to college in Colorado. The state has seen a 31 percent increase in population over the last decade but only a 9 percent spurt in college enrollment. The panel particularly wants to encourage low-income students, Hispanics and young men to think about higher education. The numbers in these groups who go to college in Colorado have been declining, Ringel said.

Budget restraints are another reason the governor asked the task force to delve into alternate funding approaches for higher education. A 1992 change to the Colorado state constitution limits the growth of government spending from one year to the next. Overall state spending cannot increase faster than the previous year's expenses after inflation and population growth are factored in. Tuition revenue is included in the limit. Thus keeping tuition low, allows the state to increase spending in other areas, such as Medicaid, K-12 and prisons.

Not everyone is convinced that college vouchers will work. "Unless we can see some sort of pilot, it's hard to know," said Richard L. Harpel, director of federal relations for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grand Colleges. "Higher ed is a lot different than K-12," he said.

"It has some promise," Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said. "But like anything, the devil is in the details." Other states that may be considering the idea have to look at their own experience, their own needs and higher ed structures, Reindl. "It could be helpful, but it has to been done carefully."

The real question, both Harpel and Reindl said, is whether students can make informed choices and will really benefit from such a voucher-program.

Colorado really has no choice but to pursue an "entrepreneurial approach," according to Rich Porreca, senior vice chancellor and chief financial officer at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Colorado, a low tax state with a small population, has 28 publicly funded higher education institutions. "There simply aren't enough state funds to go around," Porreca said

For example, at University of Colorado-Boulder, non-resident students, who make up 32 percent of the student body pay 70 percent of the tuition collected and contribute as much revenue as all of the resident students and the state of Colorado combined, according to Porreca.

If Colorado goes ahead with the voucher-like proposal it's a good bet that more state universities and colleges will seek to get "enterprise status" from the state. Under the 1992 state spending amendment, state entities that receive less than 10 percent of their money from the state's general fund can become "state enterprises" and face fewer regulations and get more flexibility, including the ability to raise tuition. The University of Colorado and the Colorado State University system would be likely to consider enterprise status since they get about 13 percent of state funds now and would likely be below the 10 percent threshold under the voucher approach.

The Colorado School of Mines is trying a different approach. In '01, the legislature agreed to give the school "charter" status, giving the school more administrative flexibility in exchange for meeting performance goals.


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