As college students flood into classrooms, in Colorado they may be finding themselves with a little less cash to spare.
In June, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens approved a controversial tuition rate hike plan recommended by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for all state-funded colleges and universities, sending some institutions' costs of attendance to their highest levels ever. With the state's budget feeling the pressure from a dragging Colorado economy, increasing tuitions became the testy compromise between state officials, universities and student groups.
Locally, the typical student attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs -- where $8 million in state funding was slashed -- saw his or her tuition jump from $2,750 annually to $3,025, not taking into account housing, meals or mandatory student fees. At Pikes Peak Community College, resident students taking a full schedule will pay between $1,580 and $1,980 -- an approximate 5 percent increase over last year.
Despite a nearly 10 percent tuition hike, UCCS spokesman Tom Hutton says the university did its best to first cut nonessential spending. No faculty or staff vacancies were filled, no computer upgrades were made on campus, and university travel budgets were curtailed.
"Raising tuition was a last resort," said Hutton. "We tried to cut expenses wherever possible. No one got a salary increase this year, from our custodians to the university chancellor. I think students understood that this wasn't something we wanted to do; it's something we had to do."
Other state schools saw an even more significant boost. Yearly tuition at the University of Colorado at Boulder rose a stinging 15 percent from $2,695 to $3,190, the second largest percentage increase in the university's history. Colorado State University hiked up comparable 9.6 percent to $2,908, and the price tag on attendance at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley leveled at $3,207 after shooting 8.6 percent.
The real world
The increases did not come out of the blue. Tuition hikes are a current trend at public universities everywhere, but they are becoming even more substantial with growing state budget cuts during bad economic weather. With education costs at their highest and financial security at a low, the effect on low-income students is more painful than ever, causing some to rethink the value of a college education.
"There's probably going to be some sticker shock this year," said Ryan McMaken, executive director of the Colorado Student Association, a nonprofit legislative lobby for students in higher education. "For the poorest students this will definitely have an impact. If you're in that category, an increase of more than $100 a month is a major difference. There will no doubt be some who won't be willing to pay for higher education when they don't feel financially secure."
With their own savings and parental assistance not going as far as they once did, cash-strapped students are getting schooled in the real world of economics. Ramen noodles and canned spaghetti no longer provide the answer. Many students are moving back in with their parents or taking on long commutes to live in cheaper housing markets. They are also tallying substantial debts.
Christie Leighton, associate director of Student Financial Services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said that while students must approach loans cautiously, they should ponder the option.
"Sometimes students are reluctant to take out loans, but it's something to consider," said Leighton. "If a loan allows them to graduate, over time they're going to get a better-paying job because they have a college education."
Storm to stay
Whatever the benefits of a college education, the rising cost is not a trend likely to die anytime soon. This year's hikes followed only somewhat smaller increases the year before, and Colorado schools have been actively seeking more leeway to raise rates even higher.
Last May, the governor vetoed a bill -- strongly lobbied for by university administrators -- that would have allowed the University of Colorado system to bypass the state's ability to overrule any tuition adjustments. With the struggling economy, the financial storm hanging over higher education could stay a while longer.
"There will certainly be some form of tuition hikes coming next year, as there have been in the past," said McMaken. "When income is going up that's not a problem, but that's not what's happening right now."
-- Zach Ahmad