Colleges pitch for more money

Legislators mum on FLC’s Native American TuitionWaiver

DENVER – College leaders made their pitches Tuesday for the scraps remaining from a two-year meltdown in the state budget.

Meanwhile, legislators gave no hint that they want to fight another battle with Fort Lewis College over the Native American Tuition Waiver program.

Most of the state’s college leaders were on hand Tuesday for a hearing of the Joint Budget Committee, which is considering Gov. Bill Ritter’s proposal for $555 million in state aid to colleges.

The plan means a $90 million cut from this year’s budget because of the loss of stimulus funds from the federal government.

Colleges can manage the cut, as long as the Legislature sticks to a plan drafted by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, said Rico Munn, head of the Department of Higher Education.

Munn cautioned legislators about trying to get more for their favorite colleges.

“All of this is one huge piece, and moving one piece has ramifications for all the others. You will not find a fair way to do it,” Munn said.

FLC President Dene Thomas met the six-person Joint Budget Committee for the first time and asked legislators to raise their hands if they understood the college’s Native American Tuition Waiver. No hand went up.

Native American students from any state can attend FLC free, and the state reimburses the college. Last year, Ritter’s administration and some legislators tried to cap the money for the program, which has been a growing expense for the state.

But FLC students and their allies in the Legislature rebelled, and sponsors abandoned the idea.

Thomas and FLC Vice President Steve Schwartz told the committee the tuition waiver is not a windfall for FLC because the college’s funding per student is among the lowest in Colorado.

“This is an effective program of which we’re very proud. We happen to be the top four-year college in the nation in awarding native students bachelor’s degrees,” Thomas said.

Legislators and FLC officials are hoping that Congress can solve the tuition waiver’s budget problem. The college wants Congress to pay for up to $10 million a year for out-of-state Native American students, while the state would continue to pay in-state tuition for Colorado residents who get the waiver.

“We have worked very closely with Sen. (Michael) Bennet and Rep. (John) Salazar, and we will be working with Rep. (Scott) Tipton on a federal bill,” Thomas said.

Ritter’s special advisory committee on colleges wrote a strategic plan last month that calls for tax increases to fund state schools.

The strategic plan noted that Colorado ranks among the best in the country in degrees per dollar invested by taxpayers, but Hispanics and other non-white students lag in graduation rates, Munn said.

“We perform the worst in the groups that are fastest growing,” Munn said. “That is not a recipe for success in Colorado’s future.”

The Legislature will consider the budget this winter and pass it in March or April. College leaders also hope to convince legislators to put a tax increase question on the 2011 ballot.

jhanel@durango herald.com