MSU Denver saw steep declines in its enrollment throughout the pandemic. Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Colorado needs to invest more than three times what its governor proposed for college and university budgets — or risk further shutting out more students, weakening its colleges, and failing to prepare young residents to work and thrive in the evolving economy.

The warning in a letter penned by 15 college presidents representing every state institution said Gov. Jared Polis’ proposed $52.5 million budget increase for colleges and financial aid wouldn’t cover their minimum operating costs. If adopted, the governor’s 2022-23 budget would precipitate a spike in tuition, presidents warned.

In the letter, the college and university presidents requested $179 million more this year from the state. Alternatively, they seek at least $105 million more plus the authority to increase tuition by 3%. That would fund contractual pay raises, and rising costs of health care,r goods, and services.

Metropolitan State University of Denver President Janine Davidson said in an email statement that college presidents wanted to make clear what it takes to operate a viable, competitive higher education system.

“Our message to the state recognizes this moment in time where we can choose between promise and peril for higher education.” Davidson said.

The letter said an investment in higher education now will reap long-term benefits by creating more job opportunities for residents and a more educated taxpayer base that has the potential for higher earnings. 

The letter also argues the long-term social benefits, such as a college education contributing to lower crime rates and more access to health care, will greatly benefit the state.

Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall said schools across the state want to better meet the regional economic needs of their communities. The cost of creating new programs, or expanding successful ones, means schools need additional funding. 

After the 2001 and 2009 recessions, lawmakers cut state funding and forced colleges to raise tuition. Colorado now funds colleges and universities at one of the lowest rates in the nation. For that reason, college officials and others want to avoid hiking tuition.

Advocacy groups worry rising tuition costs have deterred many first-generation and low-income students from  college and contributed to large disparities in who earns a college degree and who doesn’t

School leaders said they’re reluctant to again pass on higher costs to students. Marshall said schools have tried to trim costs. Further cuts would mean cutting staff that help students most at-risk of dropping out, he said.

“We’d love to see our tuition reduced,” Marshall said. “But the reality is that if we’re going to continue offering a world-class education, it costs what it costs. And we have to find a way to pay for that.”

The presidents’ request follows two difficult years. In 2020, lawmakers cut higher education by more than 58% after the pandemic prompted an economic shutdown that disrupted tax revenue. Enrollment and thus tuition revenue dipped after colleges shifted to remote classes.

Federal relief funds offset early-pandemic cuts, and the state last year restored the $852 million to higher education. But those one-time influxes of funds don’t cover ongoing increased costs and enrollment declines.

Polis has said he’s open to working with legislators to give higher education more money. While Republicans have signaled they want colleges to operate more efficiently, Democrats may consider allocating more money for higher education.

Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Tammy Story, an Evergreen Democrat, said during a Joint Education Committee meeting last week the state has underfunded higher education for years and schools need more. She said it’s difficult to think about a request from school leaders asking to just meet the core requirements of running their campuses.

“That’s sort of a sad commentary,” Story said.

Joint Budget Committee Chair  Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, said she was disappointed with the governor’s budget request for higher education. The state must take care of students, she said.

McCluskie said the Joint Budget Committee inevitably will have to seek more revenue to shift into higher education. 

“I am certainly hoping we can do better than what the governor brought forward in his proposal,” McCluskie said.

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

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.