Op ED: Prop CC

By Joyce McConnell, Tony Frank, and Mark Kennedy

Colorado is rightfully proud of its strong economy and national reputation as a hub for critical economic sectors such as biosciences, aerospace, energy, agriculture and health care. Yet funding for the driving force behind this success – an educated workforce – shouldn’t make any of us proud. In fact, it’s an embarrassment. 

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Colorado ranks 48th nationally in funding post-secondary education. We’re near dead-last on an investment critical to our state’s future, ongoing economic health, quality of life and competitiveness. State funding for higher education is 11 percent lower than it was in 2008, at the start of the great recession, even though enrollment and costs have grown.

The good news is we can help remedy that abysmal ranking by approving Proposition CC in November. It asks Colorado voters to remove arbitrary limits to the state budget without increasing the tax rate. Those limits have severely restricted investment in one of the state’s most precious resources – students.

It’s not that we don’t value education in the Centennial State: We typically rank in the top five among states in percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree. The paradox is that many people have moved to our state and brought their degrees with them. We must do a better job of educating our own if we hope to stay competitive. State investment is essential. Importing talent, along with importing a large number of non-resident students to help offset the cost for Colorado students, is not a sustainable model for Colorado’s future.

If approved, Proposition CC would earmark 1/3 of revenue for colleges and universities, with another third going to K-12 schools to help prepare students well for college and careers. The remaining third would go to transportation. The measure would have unprecedented levels of transparency, requiring independent annual audits that detail to Coloradans how the money is spent. It would not solve all Colorado’s long-term problems with its investment in education, but it would make a significant difference, particularly for students and families.

Passing Proposition CC would have a direct impact on all students of post-secondary education   – everything from community colleges and trade schools to state colleges and research universities. They all deliver the highly skilled workforce Colorado needs today and will need increasingly in the near future.

We’re joined in our support of CC by higher ed CEOs Janine Davidson (Metropolitan State University of Denver), Andy Feinstein (UNC), Tim Foster (Colorado Mesa), Joe Garcia (Community Colleges system), Carrie Besnette Hauser (Colorado Mountain College), Greg Salsbury (Western Colorado) and Tom Stritikus (Fort Lewis).

March 22, 2018. Photo by Ellen Jaskol.

Each of us knows technology is rapidly changing the workforce here and nationally. The consulting firm McKinsey estimates that automation could replace 44 percent of jobs in the U.S. by 2030. Jobs for those with only a high school education will be hit the hardest. We need to equip people with the knowledge and skills to drive the economy in our fast-changing state and world.

Our anemic investment in our students hasn’t always been this way. In 2000, the state-funded two-thirds of a student’s cost of higher education, with tuition covering the remainder. Today, that has flipped. Students now cover more than two-thirds of the cost of public education, and the state covers just a third. Even after a decade of solid economic growth and a more than $120 million tuition buy-down in this year’s state budget, higher education is still behind where it was more than a decade ago due to constraints on the state budget. 

Certainly it’s incumbent upon higher education to operate efficiently. And while there is always room to find more efficiencies, the reality is that years of being near dead last in state funding have made Colorado’s post-secondary institutions administratively lean and operationally efficient. 

The bottom line is that passing Proposition CC will be an investment in Coloradans, one that realizes a substantial return. Investing in a strong human infrastructure is one of the smartest moves our state can make. Doing so without raising the tax rate will help ensure our economy keeps humming. Let’s continue to be proud of Colorado’s strong and diverse economy and what it means for everybody’s well-being. But let’s also be proud that when we had a chance to pass Proposition CC and step up to invest in our students, workforce, and prosperity, we did so knowing that all Coloradans benefit. 

Tony Frank is chancellor of the Colorado State University System. Joyce McConnell is president of Colorado State University. Mark Kennedy is writing as a private citizen. The college and university presidents mentioned in this piece who have endorsed Proposition CC have done so either as private citizens or in their official capacity with the support of their respective governing board.