Jimmy’s Denver Gazette Column | Empower students — lower the cost of college

Written by on July 27, 2021

Couathored with University of Colorado Regent-at-Large Heidi Ganahl.

These days, it’s hard to have a genuine, comprehensive conversation about how best to solve problems plaguing our state and country. Then, things often get “wonky” when you actually try to explain your ideas.

Higher education presents a unique opportunity to agree on a problem, discuss straightforward solutions and better lives. In Monday’s column, we explored the cataclysmic crises of higher education costs and student loan debt, how we got here and why the status quo harms so many.

We proposed federal reforms to the student loan system to help both existing and future student loan borrowers, such as enabling employers to help their teams pay back loans tax-free, restoring bankruptcy protection for student loans and forcing colleges to risk-share with student loan borrowers.

From the General Assembly to colleges and universities themselves, there’s much more that can and must be done here in Colorado as well.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything about higher ed, it’s that we need a paradigm shift in how we think about paying for college and how colleges use the funds they get. Campuses terminated in-person learning for students, dramatically reducing the value-per-dollar spent on their own education, but not the dollars students were expected to pay.

Financing colleges as a service instead of funding outcomes is like giving schools a participation trophy just for existing. It’s time to fund students, not systems.

Since Colorado already provides limited financing, and given the pandemic’s lessons, it’s time to reject the outdated fee-for-service model (whereby states subsidize public colleges and universities directly) and emphasize student choice, competition and institutional responsibility.

Since July 2005, Colorado has offered College Opportunity Fund (COF) stipends, which help qualified residents who pay in-state tuition at participating undergraduate campuses. Most in-state students at a community college or public college or university can currently receive up to $13,630 over four years, while students at Regis University, CCU and DU can obtain up to $6,815. There’s a 145-hour credit limit, although some students can get a one-time waiver for additional support. For-profit or trade schools are excluded.

COF vouchers already substitute much of the state’s direct, fee-for-service funding. All things considered, it’s time for Colorado to finish the job and lead the nation in funding students instead of systems. Let’s move to a 100% stipend-based state-funding model, eliminating all direct subsidies and promoting much-needed competition for taxpayer dollars.

COF stipends should follow in-state students to any accredited public or private college, university or trade school and cover up to four years of postsecondary education. In-state residents will receive an equal amount annually regardless of school, rather than providing different amounts for public or private schools or trade schools. These days, there’s no reason not to ensure equity, irrespective of the institution, by ensuring taxpayer money solely follows the students.

Given the resulting competitive pressures, colleges and universities will have added incentive to make internal reforms – and there’s plenty to do.

For example, colleges should take it upon themselves to reduce the time it takes to earn a certificate or a degree through better degree counseling, course tracking and promoting a three-year bachelor’s degree. A robust liberal arts core curriculum can be completed in 30 credit hours, and most non-technical majors can be completed readily in 40 hours of coursework. They should stop using six-year graduation rates for analysis and trending, as most do now, and guarantee necessary courses are available.

That is, when needed courses aren’t offered or accessible, students waste time and money by taking unnecessary credits, fluffy electives and a cafeteria-line of niche courses that are often under-enrolled and insufficiently educational. It’s important that schools implement guided pathways and build course plans geared to achieve students’ desired career outcomes. While college is about more than just a career, it’s imperative that institutions do more here.

Schools should provide cost and time implications for switching degrees/career paths and advise students to avoid “cafeteria-style” courses and consider whether courses count toward their degree. Let’s utilize milestone classes to give students early signals about their prospects for success in each field of study.

We need robust, comprehensive transfer agreements across states, university systems and campuses so students can easily take their credits with them. More than 60% of bachelor’s degree recipients attempt to transfer credits; 45% of them say no credits were accepted. That’s wasted time and money.

Regulatory changes should expand online delivery, competency-based education and short-term career training, all of which could dramatically cut the cost of a postsecondary education. Evidence suggests many short-term sub-baccalaureate programs like occupational certificates and associates degrees can provide a significant wage premium. Finally, why aren’t we facilitating year-round schooling and incentivizing better space utilization?

These aren’t new ideas, but when implemented cohesively they might just give way to finally cutting the cost of college. Lower the price and you’ll empower more students to afford college and get their degrees. Let’s get on it.

Click here to read the rest of Jimmy’s July 27 column with Heidi Ganahl at The Denver Gazette, a sister publication of The Washington Examiner.

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