Benson calls for 'new partnership' with state

President to Joint Budget Committee: 'We cannot afford to starve our universities'
By Staff

University of Colorado President Bruce Benson today asked state lawmakers and Coloradans to enter into a new partnership with higher education aimed at sustaining the state's public colleges and universities though continued budget difficulties.

Benson was one of several college and university presidents who made presentations to the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee (JBC) on Wednesday, Dec. 2, and answered questions from lawmakers on the committee, which sets the state budget.

"I would propose a new partnership with the state and with the people of Colorado, one that ensures accountability, guarantees access, promotes excellence and allows higher education to continue to do its part to make our state great," he said. "We cannot afford to starve our colleges and universities. They are key drivers of Colorado's economic, social and cultural health and have been since 1876."

Benson cited four primary facets of the new partnership: allowing universities to "appropriately price tuition," rather than have caps set by the state; investing in professional health programs, particularly the School of Medicine; adjusting the restrictions on how many days PERA retirees can work from 110 days to 150 days; and promoting flexibility legislation to allow colleges and universities to operate more efficiently.

Flexibility legislation already has been crafted by higher education leaders along with state Sen. John Morse (D-Colorado Springs), who will carry the bill with Rep. Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver), a JBC member. Benson cited two parts of the legislation that are particularly important to CU: removing international students from nonresident enrollment caps and allowing higher education to establish its own fiscal rules, apart from what many see as unnecessary red tape.

Benson said flexibility legislation is a step in the right direction, but by no means a cure-all. "It won't solve our problems, but it will allow us to operate more efficiently," he said.

JBC members were cautiously supportive of the proposal. Chairman Pommer asked if tuition flexibility would allow the university to provide more financial aid. Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kelly Fox, who was on hand to help answer questions, said it would particularly help middle-income families, who often do not qualify for financial aid, by making them eligible for more funding. Benson said CU has increased its internally generated financial aid from $38 million in 2002 to just over $100 million today.

Benson also recognized that higher education is unlikely to achieve tuition flexibility this legislative session. Gov. Bill Ritter already has stated that tuition increases will be capped at 9 percent for the next academic year.

Rep. Al White (R-Hayden) asked if CU is considering additional revenue streams, such as refinancing the Fitzsimons certificates of participation bonds or exploring the possibility of creating an authority similar to the University of Colorado Hospital authority.

Benson said CU has had initial discussions along those lines, both internally and with other colleges and universities, but has not developed concrete proposals.