Heather McGregorPost Independent EditorGlenwood Springs, Colorado CO

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July 18, 2012
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CSU prez calling for a 'conversation' on funding of higher ed

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Colorado State University President Tony Frank has plenty to boast about: CSU is enjoying a fourth straight year of record enrollment, an eighth year of record research funding and $700 million in campus construction projects over the past decade.One quarter of the university's students are the first in their families to attend college, and the university topped its $500 million goal in a recent campaign to raise funds for scholarships and program development.The Fort Collins university enrolls more Colorado high school graduates than any other university, and awarded more than 6,000 degrees in the 2010-11 academic year.But what's on Tony Frank's mind as he makes a tour this month through communities in western, southern and eastern Colorado, including a stop in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday, is the policy decision of how Colorado funds its overall higher education system.State funding formulas are complex, but Frank points the finger at rising health care costs for state government, which he said will "eat up the rest of the budget pie."Twenty years ago, about 65 percent of public higher education spending in Colorado came from tax dollars and 35 percent from tuition. Today, that ratio has more than flipped, with state funding contributing no more than 30 percent and tuition covering the other 70 percent.Frank said when adjusted for inflation, the cost to deliver a college education is no different now than in 1992. But students now pay a far greater share of the cost. And if fiscal trends that have emerged in Colorado over the past 20 years continue, state funding for higher education could completely vanish in the next five to 10 years."The path we are on, in the next five to 10 years we'll essentially be privatized," Frank said.CSU would be no different than private colleges such as Colorado College or University of Denver in charging students the full cost of tuition."It's time to have a conversation," Frank said. "We can hold tuition costs down by keeping public funding for higher education, or we can continue to raise tuition to cover all the costs. Both are policy decisions."What's wrong is if we get to 2020 without having the conversation," Frank said.He brings the issue up as the nation's land grant universities celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the federal legislation signed by President Lincoln in 1862 to establish land grant colleges. The Colorado Agricultural College, later to become Colorado A&M and finally CSU, was one of 68 established across the country by the Morrill Act."Even at that dark hour, President Lincoln knew that broad access to higher education was critical for the nation's long-term success," Frank wrote in an essay celebrating the act's anniversary.Frank and his road trip companion, Tom Milligan, CSU vice president of external relations, are keeping an eye on world trends in higher education as the global marketplace becomes increasingly competitive.While the U.S. and Colorado in particular struggle with public funding for higher education, China and India are using the publicly-funded university model to educate millions of young people.India is graduating more engineers in a year than all U.S. students earning a bachelor's degree of any type, Milligan said.He and Frank are also tracking debate over the value of a college education.In the U.S., a college education cuts the risk of unemployment in half and triples a person's career earnings, Frank said. At CSU, the average student graduates with about $20,000 in student loans - a bit less than the national average.Given the average graduate's higher earnings potential, Frank and Milligan believe that debt load is acceptable for young professionals."But if we eliminate public funding for higher education, there's no doubt you'll see those debt loads rise," Frank said.He called on legislators, business leaders and all Coloradoans to "recall the vision and courage of Lincoln" in making sure future generations have the same access to higher education envisioned when the Morrill Act was passed.

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The Post Independent Updated Jul 18, 2012 01:33AM Published Jul 18, 2012 01:31AM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.