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Colorado Colleges Decided to Hold Tuition Flat. But the Move Also Comes at a Cost.

Facing an unprecedented economic crisis, Colorado’s colleges and universities decided to forgo tuition increases, a move that might have brought in more money this fall for cash-strapped schools.

That’s unlike during the Great Recession, when declining state support in Colorado’s colleges and universities prompted schools to greatly increase tuition for students, said Tony Frank, Colorado State University chancellor.

Instead, where state support has again dipped during the crisis brought on by the coronavirus, schools have decided instead to institute furloughs, cuts, and layoffs.

Colorado higher education leaders say the decision to hold tuition flat is necessary, with the crisis laying bare the squeeze that school leaders have found themselves in since the last economic downturn. School leaders see raising already high tuition as a very last resort, even as state support has dipped and the costs to respond to the pandemic rise.

“Most of us have brought our tuition up to national averages and there’s a law of diminishing returns for, I think, many of us now as we think about raising our price,” Frank said during a Monday panel focused on the challenges higher education faces. Undergraduate tuition and fees at CSU are about $12,000 a year for in-state students. 

At stake for schools as they struggle financially is the thinning of resources that allow them to equitably meet the needs of all and allow for them to maintain a quality education.

About further shifting the burden to students, Frank said, “In general I don’t think there are many university presidents who think that tuition is a long-term solution.”

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association senior policy analyst Dustin Weeden said institutions have also endured unexpected costs such as paying to shift to a remote environment, more campus cleanings, and spring refunds to students for certain campus fees.

Schools are also concerned about whether students will return in the fall. Tuition increases might discourage some, despite colleges’ need for more revenue, Weeden said.

“Institutions are really in a hard spot,” Weeden said.

For the state’s colleges, the shifting plans around in-person and remote instruction come at a steep cost.

College campuses are built to deliver education in person. Sending students home last spring forced schools to invest in an online education infrastructure.

Fixed costs for schools also don’t disappear, with faculty and staff still needing to be paid and schools still needing money for utility and building costs.

“Teaching online isn’t necessarily cheaper than teaching on campus,” Metro State University of Denver President Janine Davidson said. “Especially if you’re already a brick-and-mortar campus and you’re going to add that technological backbone. It’s not trivial.”

This year, universities’ state funding has decreased 5%. But it could have been worse. Funding decreased modestly thanks in part to $450 million in federal coronavirus relief money that Colorado lawmakers used to backfill the state’s 58% cut — a $493 million disinvestment.

Schools have directly helped students overcome rising tuition after the Great Recession through grants, including a CSU program that has provided targeted financial aid for over 19,000 students, Frank said. But rising tuition creates hurdles for students.

And additional tuition increases would only create a burden for the school to find more resources for low-income students, he said. He is worried the pandemic will cause a greater need for financial aid among low-income and middle-class families.

Without aid, those students would be stuck with high tuition bills that will take them years to pay off and cut into their long-term earnings, Frank said.

But there is a trade-off to not raising tuition, Weeden said. Research shows higher spending at a university improves the quality of education for students.

There is a real and understandable concern about the financial toll the pandemic will have on schools if it stretches into the spring semester, Weeden said. And he expects the coronavirus’ impacts on Colorado schools to last years.

“I think the real long-term concern is the viability — whether or not an institution can remain viable and operating,” Weeden said.

Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

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