President Bruce Benson's newsletter

A message from President Bruce Benson

January 2017

Dear Alumni and Friends,

I sometimes ask people what percentage of CU’s $3.8 billion annual budget comes from state funding. Guesses typically range from 30 to 60 percent. The actual figure is less than 6 percent.

As the Colorado General Assembly begins its legislative session next week, some of our friends urge us to lobby harder, tell our story better, and make a stronger case to legislators for more funding. The reality is our lawmakers understand and appreciate what CU and all higher education do for our students, citizens, communities and state and they support us. They know our university and its four campuses are a powerful economic engine for Colorado, that we prepare the highly skilled workforce our state demands, and that the nearly $1 billion in largely federal research funds we attract improves lives, drives innovation and has a substantial economic impact.

The trouble is their hands are tied. While the state budget is limited by competing measures in the state constitution (including Amendment 23, TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment), revenues are also not adequate enough to maintain programs over time, including higher education. The result is Colorado ranks an abysmal 48th nationally in state funding for higher education. Forecasts show the future will be equally challenging, perhaps more so.

While state higher education funding was flat last year, CU got a 3 percent increase because enrollment increased and we received funding to reward our strong performance. The governor’s budget request for the coming year calls for a modest increase for higher education, although it is a long road between request and reality. Still, we appreciate this support – it demonstrates that state leadership values higher education.

But it doesn’t change how far we are behind the curve. When I started almost nine years ago, our state funding was $227 million. This year it’s $202 million. It dipped as low as $158 million in 2013. All the while, our enrollment has steadily increased, so we serve more students with less funding. We estimate that our state funding should be $385 million to have the same funding per resident student as we did in 2001.

A snapshot of where we stand nationally shows CU Boulder’s peers in the prestigious Association of American Universities receive an average of three times more state funding per resident student than we do. This hurts us in the competitive market for top students, faculty and researchers, not to mention its effects on tuition costs and quality.

It is imperative that the state of Colorado grows the funding pie. The continual decline throughout the years will haunt us if we don’t reverse the trend, particularly when forecasts show more rough waters ahead.

CU certainly will continue to do what it can. We have found efficiencies, fostered public-private partnerships, increased research funding and bolstered fundraising. Yet the last two, while adding significant value to our university, are earmarked for specific use by either the donors or federal funding agencies and cannot be diverted. State funding is critical. Along with tuition, it pays mandatory costs (such as utilities and insurance) and our stellar faculty, who are at the heart of academic quality.

We also have had a great partnership with lawmakers the past nine years, during which they have passed legislation that allows us to operate more efficiently, cut red tape and increase revenue. The result has been nine years of savings and revenue enhancements. To give some recent examples, we saw $32 million in savings and cost avoidance last year and $40 million the year before. While we are never finished looking for efficiencies – internally and with the help of legislation – there aren’t many obvious targets left to pursue.

There is simply no substitute for state funding, so we intend to continue to engage with legislators and others to address the issue. Beginning next week, lawmakers will consider modest fixes, and we have ideas as well. It’s a start to tackling a complex issue, one that looms large for Colorado and beyond.

For feedback, contact

Bruce D. Benson
Bruce Benson

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