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Senate Majority Leader Morse casts about for pennies to throw at a big problem

As Colorado's worsening budget crunch threatens to take another bite out of higher education funding, some people have suggested simply ramping up tuition at state colleges and universities. The extra cash would help balance the bottom line and pump up financial aid for needy students.

At least that's the theory.

"That only works in a model where you have a majority of full-pay students," says Joe Garcia, president of Colorado State University's Pueblo campus.

At CSU-Pueblo, where more than three-quarters of students already need aid to cover semester tuition costs of about $2,000, it would mean jacking up tuition for a handful of students into the tens of thousands, which Garcia sees as impractical.

"What I would like to see," Garcia says, "is the public increasing the amount of support for higher education."

That could happen down the road, particularly if Colorado voters ever approve a dedicated tax increase for higher ed (though no one wants to ask them until the recession's passed). But with a shrinking state budget already dominated by mandatory spending for K-12 education, Medicaid and other big-ticket departments, the immediate future for higher ed funding is bleak.

Senate Majority Leader John Morse of Colorado Springs, playing the part of college professor, scribbles budget numbers on a white board, including the $660 million higher ed was set to receive in 2009-10. (The number has actually been cut already by $80 million, but that's been offset temporarily by federal stimulus money.) With even bigger cuts coming and stimulus money likely running out in the next year, Morse sees big trouble approaching.

"This number is going to go to zero," Morse says. "Mathematically, there isn't a choice."

To help, he's trying to cobble together a bill for the coming legislative session. Radical changes, such as the tuition increases Garcia describes, are probably off the table — Gov. Ritter has said he would veto legislation that takes the power to set tuition increases away from the state Legislature. That leaves mostly small stuff.

Like other departments of state government, colleges and universities are required to go through laborious purchasing procedures and to get most legal services from the state attorney general's office. Morse says lifting those restrictions could give schools some breathing room, though he's not sure how much.

Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and Tony Kinkel, president of Pikes Peak Community College, both say that eliminating "duplicative" financial reporting would free up money. It now takes three or four employees at UCCS alone to meet reporting requirements each month; Shockley-Zalabak thinks they could be used for other tasks while still keeping the university's finances transparent.

Like Garcia at CSU-Pueblo, Shockley-Zalabak is resistant to big, across-the-board tuition hikes. She says freeing administrators to boost tuition for high-demand and high-cost programs could help, but Ritter's veto threat makes that unlikely. One thing that could help right away: Legislators could stop counting full-paying international students toward the limit of out-of-state students (one-third of the student body).

"It will make a difference," she says. "I won't say a big difference."

Morse says he hopes measures like these will be enough to keep schools from making damaging cuts or even closing in some rural areas.

"I just think we're running out of time," he says. "They need to be banking money. For them, bad times are just around the corner."

lane@csindy.com

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