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Governor proposes study of Colo. higher education

DENVER – Warning that higher education is facing a funding crisis next year, Gov. Bill Ritter named businessman Dick Monfort and attorney Jim Lyons on Thursday to chair a new committee and come up with a roadmap for the future of Colorado’s 27 public colleges and universities.

“It really is about writing the future of education in this state and higher education in this state. It really is about a master plan,” Ritter told college presidents and education leaders at a summit at the Capitol.

Possible solutions include a ballot measure asking voters for a tax increase to fund higher education, a study of efficiency and performance, and giving the Colorado Commission on Higher Education more power to set tuition and eliminate duplicate courses.

The state college system serves about 220,000 students a year.

In October, college presidents agreed they needed to take steps to keep higher education accessible and affordable for Colorado residents following warnings they are facing a “cliff” when federal funds from the stimulus package begin to expire next year.

Ritter is being forced by state law to cut $560 million from this fiscal year’s budget, which ends June 30. Over this fiscal year and the next, lawmakers will see the state General Fund budget slashed from $7.5 billion to $6.2 billion, with higher education funding one of the few budget items not protected by the state constitution.

Monfort said a tax increase could be a tough sell because of the perception among voters that university administration and faculty haven’t made their share of sacrifices in a slumping economy.

“Some of that’s true, some of it isn’t true, but that’s not the whole story,” Monfort said, noting that many institutions and faculty bring in substantial grants and donations that subsidize higher education.

Monfort spent 20 years in the cattle business and is a vice chairman of the Colorado Rockies. He also sits on the University of Northern Colorado Board of Trustees.

Lyons is co-chair of the governor’s Jobs Cabinet and a prominent attorney.

University of Colorado President Dr. Bruce Benson said it’s important to take a thorough look at the way Colorado provides college opportunities to assure high quality, accessible and affordable education.

“To achieve that, we have to be realistic and deliberate in how we direct our current low funding levels. We also need to look for new revenue streams to sustain our colleges and universities,” Benson said.

Suggestions for legislation when the Legislature convenes in January include allowing colleges and universities flexibility in setting tuition, exemption from state personnel rules limiting the use of temporary employees, exemptions from the state pension program to keep educators from seeking early retirement, allowing colleges to enroll more international students and limits on financial reporting requirements.

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