Staff Council hears details on possible changes to tuition benefit

Study spurs examination of how to make program more user-friendly

Tuition benefit changes are being examined at the University of Colorado in order to make the program more user-friendly and competitive with other similar institutions around the nation.

Changes currently being considered include increasing the tuition waiver hours or providing discounted tuition to eligible employees and dependants, said E. Jill Pollock, chief human resources officer and senior associate vice president. She spoke to members of the University of Colorado Staff Council at their Feb. 3 meeting.

A report prepared by Aon Hewitt compared university benefits for exempt employees with those offered at 27 other higher education institutions.

The study found the university was not competitive in a number of areas, including tuition benefits. CU currently offers waivers of nine credit hours per year. A two-year pilot program offering dependant benefits recently was completed at the Colorado Springs campus. Another challenge associated with the current program is that participants using waivers are allowed in a class on a space-available basis, severely restricting degree-seeking students.

The university currently is analyzing several models to determine what changes or combination of changes would improve the program. Some suggestions include increasing tuition waiver hours to 12 hours from the current nine, allowing dependants to use the benefits, and offering discounted tuition – as much as 50 percent to eligible employees and their families.

Pollock hopes the university can roll out the revamped benefit by July 1.

"It's the one differentiator a university can have among all the benefits," Pollock said. "When I was at Ford, I got cool car discounts. Makes sense because they want you to drive their product. Similarly, here we are in a learning environment. Shouldn't we have our own employees and family members have a special relationship with the campuses?"

She said overly restrictive state rules prohibited the university from making changes, but the passage last year of the Higher Education Flexibility law now allows a re-examination of policy.

The report also found that life insurance and disability benefits offered by the university were not competitive. Currently, the university offers a fixed $50,000 university-paid life insurance benefit while other institutions offer a higher fixed number or a "1x salary" benefit. Disability pay also is less than most surveyed institutions. Pollock said the university is working with Standard, the present vendor, to negotiate better deals in those areas.

Pollock also offered data showing the number of classified and exempt employees on all university campuses. Over the past three years, beginning in 2008, she said, the "relative distribution of classified and exempt employees is virtually the same. Overall the university has fewer employees, but the mix hasn't changed that much."

Staff Council Co-chair Lori Krug had asked for the data because the Board of Regents may soon be discussing budget cuts. Earlier, an across-the-board reduction of pay of 2 percent had been raised as a partial solution to deficits.

A 2 percent cut "may have a much stronger impact than they think it will, so this is one of the tools I was hoping to use to illustrate that. I also want to make sure they understand the staffing level changes," she said. "The university has in fact made its contribution to the budget process. We have reduced a number of positions and in some cases laid off people because we had to."

Some Board of Regents members have implied that "we don't have enough skin in the game" she said. "I would challenge that."

In other matters:

  • Krug showed members the new staff council web page and a discussion followed concerning a blog and comments and how those will be used and monitored.
  • Council will call for nominations for the 2011 Service Excellence Awards that will be presented April 15 during the All Staff Council Conference in Denver. Deadline for nominations is March 1.
  • Geoff Barsch, assistant vice president for budget and finance, presented an update on the upcoming budget discussions in the Colorado Legislature. Barsch said revenue forecasts are stable but because of the split leadership, different opinions on how to set the budget have ensued, causing an element of uncertainty. One idea, for instance, would secure a 4 percent reserve, meaning legislators and Gov. John Hickenlooper would be required to trim the budget by an additional $140 million.