INSIGHTS | Higher education is once again Colorado’s stepchild | Coronavirus

For such an educated populace and economic landscape that teems with technology, Colorado sure has a strange way of showing its love for higher education.

Lawmakers returned to the Capitol this week with the aim of cutting about $500 million from colleges and universities, a favorite target in the last two recessions. This crisis makes it three in a row. Parents and students are about to pay more to get a good education.

Our road to paying for higher education has never been paved in gold. Ahead the ride only gets bumpier as schools learn how to provide more learning online, and society figures out a fair price for what that’s worth.

Joey Bunch: “I don’t think you can learn how to get along with others from a distance, but the pandemic is giving people ideas and stimulus money to explore the options.”

Inescapable cuts are taking shape at the statehouse with moans and groans. That’s what politicians do. 

I’ll spare you the quotes of regret here and save the syllables to tell you about the General Assembly’s hopes to deliver a long-term solution, rather than continuing to shift their responsibility onto parents, banks and private research partners. We’ve been waiting a long time already.

Changes have to happen inside and outside the system.

Universities have built sprawling kingdoms, much the ways hospitals have. Online meetings and, yes, distance learning have opened up either a treasure chest or a Pandora’s Box of colleges. I just did the David Sedaris Masterclass online, and it was worth every penny with as skilled an instructor as I’ve ever had. Masterclass costs $15 a month, about the cost of Netflix.

That’s not the full learning experience, but a baseline for cost.

The sticky issues there and elsewhere portend a litigious fall, as colleges and universities face expensive legal battles with parents over the fair price of the college experience in a pandemic world. In other words, whatever happens won’t be cheap.

There’s already a class-action lawsuit by the parent of a George Washington University student, alleging the school’s shift to distance learning this spring robbed his daughter of the value of the campus experience, including interaction with classmates and faculty.

The Joint Budget Committee is also recommending a devastating $577 million cut to K-12 schools.

You can bet parents of kids in K-12 are looking on worriedly if the price of higher learning continues to climb.

Parents are used to this refrain.

This dilemma is one of the reasons former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper was so dogged in programs that allowed students to train for a good job without enrolling at traditional universities. A college degree is an expensive wager against future earnings, and one reason that a lot of young people are paying more is because legislators invest less.

Chalkbeat, the very excellent educational news website, noted this month that in the last four decades — since I was back in college, basically — tuition has multiplied times 10 at such attainable schools as Colorado State.

The price of everything else since 1980 collectively has merely tripled

In 1992, states averaged $307 in tax money per capita for higher ed. In 2017 the number slid to $299, according to the Midwestern Higher Education Compact. Colorado puts in just $168, ranking ahead of just three other states: Vermont ($148), Pennsylvania ($143) and New Hampshire ($93).

Who’s paying the freight in good times and bad? Momma, poppa and lenders who saddle students with astronomical debt. Helped by scholarships, a roster of part-time jobs and miserly money management, I graduated college in 1985 with debt roughly the price of a 2006 Subaru Impreza in Centennial, $6,000, today. 

My payment felt crushing at $180 a month (428 bucks in 2020 dollars) for five years, which worked out to about a week’s bring-home pay for a sports editor at a small newspaper in Alabama. Rent and utilities took another two weeks’ income, and the rest went for food, clothes and beer. I cut my own hair and called nobody doctor.

How kids can afford the kind of college debt they face ahead is more than I can get my mind around. I don’t know how they will afford beer.

“Even the most modest state budgetary reductions due to the coronavirus-induced recession are expected to diminish the ability of colleges to teach students,” wrote Chalkbeat’s Jason Gonzales on May 8. “Deeper cuts — especially while the pandemic simultaneously prompts fewer students to enroll — could lead to the state’s more vulnerable colleges facing a death spiral.

“Significantly hiking tuition once again might turn away families who already have absorbed years of increases.”

And if colleges lose, it won’t be just students and parents. We have some of the world’s best research institutions anywhere affiliated with universities in our state. Private companies that pay well — think aerospace — locate here to collaborate and benefit. Industry pours dollars into programs, thank goodness.

What I’m saying is the decline of higher education won’t stop at the end of fraternity row.

“Higher education makes important contributions to the betterment of society and to the lives of individuals,” the Midwestern Higher Education Compact noted. “On a societal level, higher education supplies an educated citizenry and workforce. For individuals, higher education provides an opportunity for personal development, fulfillment, and economic mobility. States play a large role in helping public colleges and universities fulfill these promised benefits.”

Crisis produces innovation, and so do empty pockets. Colorado has both.

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