Colorado Department of Higher Education requests budget increase

Projects that 75 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020

DENVER – The Colorado Department of Higher Education is seeking a budget increase of $20.5 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year because of increased health insurance costs and a need to moderate statewide tuition increases, said Diane Duffy, interim executive director of the higher education department.

This represents about a 2.5 percent increase from last year’s budget request, Duffy told members of the Colorado General Assembly’s Joint Budget Committee. “We think this is a modest and reasonable request, and we hope they see it that way.” The money is needed to offset costs and increase the accessibility and quality of education, she said.

Making higher education available to more students is particularly important as the department projects that 75 percent of the jobs in Colorado will require some level of postsecondary education by 2020, Duffy said.

To accommodate this, Colorado universities and colleges must ensure historically underserved minority communities have opportunities, she said.

“Our future economy requires it (diversity) because if we keep doing what we are doing, in terms of folks we have completing postsecondary credentials, that will not create enough workforce for the workforce of the future,” she said.

During presentations Thursday to the Joint Budget Committee, major questions regarding the purpose and future of higher education in Colorado were brought up as was the funding formula for higher education.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud said the growing number of nontraditional students and need for graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math for the workforce may require a shift in the emphasis and avenues through which higher education is relayed.

“Our delivery system for higher ed is not going to work as it did in previous decades,” Lundberg said. New delivery systems must make education more accessible for students who are not in the 18-to 22-year old range that live on campus. “I don’t believe bricks and mortar are going to get everything done,” he said.

This sparked a conversation over what the purpose of higher education is: to create trained and capable individuals for the workforce or something more?

“There’s a great deal more to it than that,” said Kay Norton, president of the University of Northern Colorado.

“It’s really about the transformation of an individual for a lifetime, not just in terms of learning specific things or job skills or increased earning capacity, which are all real benefits of higher education.”

Duffy said she agrees there is a twofold benefit for individuals in many facets of their lives and for business and industry by having trained and capable workers.

Norton said the trend toward STEM is particularly troubling for her institution as it was founded on preparing teachers for entering the field of education but has been moving toward technical and health care based programs.

Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado, said the move toward STEM is driven by demand, and it falls to universities to deliver a workforce that is trained in the skills needed for a marketplace that is increasingly dependent on these fields of study.

This led to questions from the JBC on whether the funding formula for higher ed in Colorado, which rewards the awarding of degrees in STEM and health care at a higher rate than others, has pushed the emphasis on these fields. “I don’t think that the state’s fairly recent funding formula that favors that has caused the kind of enrollment shifts that we see. I think that’s much more of a national phenomenon,” Norton said.

The funding formula used by the higher education department, which came under fire Wednesday when officials from Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado Mesa University questioned its equability and comprehensiveness, also was discussed Thursday by the JBC and representatives of the University of Colorado System, Colorado State University, Colorado School of Mines and University of Northern Colorado.

Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University, said all Colorado public colleges feel left out at times by the formula. “There are a lot of factors in the formula, and we all recognize they are important factors,” Frank said.

While changes could be made, Frank said the current formula does a reasonable job approximating what performance markers are important and rewards institutions for reaching them.

“The funding model is really an expression of the priorities of the state of Colorado,” said Duffy.

lperkins@durangoherald.com