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Funding adequacy study for higher ed

House Bill 1067 regarding funding for Fort Lewis College has generated a lot of publicity, and our community is rightfully concerned.

The federal government gave The Old Fort Lewis College Campus near Hesperus to Colorado under the condition that the college would admit Native American students “free of tuition.”

This agreement has made Fort Lewis a national leader in providing education to Native American students, creating a culture of diversity recognized as the hallmark of college and the surrounding area. To make up these tuition costs, the state reimburses Fort Lewis the tuition for each Native American student. Enrollment is open to all Native American students nationwide.

House Bill 1067, as introduced, would not in any way have affected the ability of these students to attend the college tuition free, but would have impacted the reimbursement provided by the state to Fort Lewis College.

Under the bill, the state would no longer reimburse the college the full out-of-state tuition costs for Native American students, and would only provide funding for the actual cost of instruction for these students. This change would have cut the funding an additional $1.8 million on top of the cuts outlined in the governor’s proposal to balance the budget.

Although most of the cuts proposed by the governor’s office would be initially backfilled using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the combined impact of the 31-percent cut and the $1.8 million proposed under HB 1067 would be devastating to the college and the region. Cutting the school’s budget by this amount would lead to difficulties in academic programming and could mean a significant loss of jobs in the area. My staff and I have made this a priority issue over the last two weeks, and we have received many e-mails and phone calls regarding the introduction of HB 1067.

Friday afternoon, the House sponsor for HB 1067 and the Director of the Department of Higher Education announced they would pull the bill on Monday the 25th. They felt there were some misunderstandings about the bill, and still stressed the need to balance the budget. While many of us understand the budget challenges facing the state, our region should not be forced to bear a disproportionate share of the burden. We must continue to support our education system, or as I like to call it, the surest way to economic recovery for our state.

This is a great achievement for the region, but there are still many funding challenges Fort Lewis College will face in the near future. Therefore, I am planning to introduce legislation that will direct the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to complete a funding adequacy study.

The bill would request that the Commission examine the state funding through fee for service contracts to make sure this funding is adequate and consistent among all of Colorado’s institutions of higher education. The study will also provide recommendations to help achieve the long-term viability of all public higher education institutions. This will need to be completed prior to the 2011 legislative session so that the funding for Fiscal Year 2011-12 can be evaluated after the ARRA funds are no longer available.

There is a long road ahead in addressing issues of education funding in our state. Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that we will find solutions to these problems together. Thank you to the students of Fort Lewis and members of the community who rose in support of our college. Please keep writing and calling. Stay involved. And, as always, please let me know how I can better serve you at the Capitol. I will provide an update on many of the other bills I will be working on in future columns.

Editor’s note: Sen. Whitehead can be reached at: bruce.whitehead.senate@state.co.us, (303) 866-4884, Twitter: SenWhitehead.