Of 15 Western states, Colorado now ranks fifth most expensive state in which to go to a public four-year college, according to a recent report by the Boulder-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
For years, Colorado has ranked in the middle of the WICHE institutions when in-state, undergraduate tuition and fees were tabulated. But the state is on the climb upward, behind Arizona, Washington, Oregon and South Dakota.
And some of those states – notably Washington, Oregon and California – are known for their strong financial aid programs while Colorado isn’t.
“Colorado is creeping upward,” said WICHE President David Longanecker. “Access is more protected in those three states than it is in Colorado, which doesn’t have state financial aid to offset tuition increases.”
For next year, the Colorado Legislature has set a tuition hike cap at 9 percent, and many colleges and universities – including the University of Colorado’s flagship campus in Boulder – are going for the max for in-state students.
Colorado’s yearly tuition and fees for in-state students at four-year schools totals $6,079 this year, putting it close to the WICHE average.
When you combine CU-Boulder and Colorado State University, two public research institutions, in-state tuition and fees collectively have risen 130.9 percent over the past 10 years, to $7,125. Still, Colorado and the other Western states remain a bargain compared to other parts of the country when you consider tuition and fees alone.
“The West is moving more toward the national averages,” Longanecker said, noting that the economic downturn had a bigger impact here than in other areas due to meltdowns in the high-tech and real estate sectors. “State government has suffered more significantly in this recession than the country as a whole.”
Four-year tuition and fees climb 9 percent
The report, which many Western policymakers consult as they set tuition levels, found that average resident undergraduate tuition and fees at public two-year schools in the region increased by 6.4 percent this year over last, while resident tuition and fees at public four-year schools climbed by 9 percent. Nationally, the increase between 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 was 7.3 percent for two-year schools; and 6.5 percent for four-year institutions.
During the same period, the consumer price index fell 2.1 percent.
“Tuition hikes send a discouraging signal to students and families, and absolutely have an impact on family finances and student access,” said Edie Irons, spokeswoman for the Oakland, Calif.-based Institute for College Access and Success, a non-profit organization aimed at improving access to post-secondary education for all. “It’s important to look at what families are actually paying. Is there a corresponding increase in grant aid to cover that tuition hike, or not? What types of financial aid packages to universities offer to cover those costs?”
Tuition prices run the gamut, with the most expensive Western school being the Colorado School of Mines in Golden ($12,244 annual tuition and fees) and the most affordable being New Mexico Highlands University at $2,741. In statewide terms, Wyoming is the least expensive place to get a college degree and, not surprisingly, cash-strapped Arizona costs the most, especially after tuition and fees this year climbed by 21.6 percent.
As far as two-year schools are concerned, the West’s average two-year tuition rate, excluding California, exceeded the national figure for the fourth consecutive year. Tuition and fees for resident, in-district students at public two-year colleges in the WICHE states averaged $2,648 in 2009-2010, up 6.4 percent from the previous year and up 32.1 percent over the past five years.
Colorado ranks seventh in terms of tuition and fees at two-year schools of the 15 WICHE states.
The main drivers of tuition hikes are increased operational costs and reduced budgets. Slumping state tax collections are wreaking havoc on Colorado’s state budget, and the same thing is happening elsewhere. Of the 15 WICHE states, higher education in Colorado is facing the third largest budget gap, at 18.4 percent, in fiscal 2011 behind only Arizona and Nevada.
The pressure to supplement lagging state dollars with tuition and fees won’t end any time soon. Economic forecasts show that state level budget shortfalls will likely continue through at least fiscal 2012.
Meanwhile, student numbers continue to grow. The number of 18 to 24 year olds attending college in the U.S. recently hit an all-time high of 11.5 million students, or nearly 40 percent of all adults in that age range, Longanecker said.
Still, policymakers should abstain from making across-the-board cuts to higher education. Instead, they should focus on preserving affordability and access to under-represented and first generation students, while making deeper cuts to institutions that serve a student body with more resources.
“We used to charge very little for the most expensive institutions, such as CU-Boulder,” he said. “But if you look at who goes to those institutions and what it costs to provide education…some institutions attract disproportionately well-off students, and provide them a very expensive education. A rational economic model says if they can afford it why not have them pay a larger fare?”
Longanecker said the tuition hikes in Colorado shouldn’t deter most students from seeking an advanced degree – except, perhaps, the neediest students. Even if the students are supported by Pell grants, they may have to shell out substantial amounts for living expenses and books.
“If you don’t cover all those things, participation will go down,” he said. “For every $1,000 increase in price for a low-income student, participation will decline by 5 to 9 percent.”
Irons, of the Institute for College Access and Success, agreed. While student numbers are climbing – despite tuition increases – there is a shift in who’s going to college.
“Cost is a big issue for lower income students and first generation students – people on the margins,” she said. “Pell grant recipients are more likely to borrow and borrow more than non-Pell grant students.”
Tuition and fee rankings
Tuition and fees for resident students attending baccalaureate degree-producing schools in WICHE states and the percentage that tuition and fees rose between 2008-2009 and 2009-2010:
1. Arizona, $6,798/21.6 percent
2. Washington, $6,749/11.9 percent
3. Oregon, $6,716/7.3 percent
4. South Dakota, $6,488/6.6 percent
5. Colorado, $6,079/9.3 percent
6. California, $5,968/19.0 percent
7. North Dakota, $5,916/3.5 percent
8. Hawaii, $5,414/13.4 percent
9. Montana, $5,107/2.4 percent
10. Alaska, $4,979/4.8 percent
11. Idaho, $4,840/6.2 percent
12. Nevada, $4,375/9.6 percent
13. Utah, $4,354/7.7 percent
14. New Mexico, $4,098/5.0 percent
15. Wyoming, $3,726/2.9 percent