Despite a budget pledge by Gov. Jared Polis and the General Assembly to hold in-state tuition flat at Colorado's public universities and colleges in 2019-20, there's one exception to that agreement: Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The Joint Budget Committee (JBC) has known all along that the tuition freeze wasn’t going to happen at MSU Denver, widely referred to as Metro State. According to the budget narrative that was introduced along with the 2019-20 state budget bill in March, Metro was given an exception to the freeze, allowing it to boost tuition by 3 percent.
In 2019-20, Metro State will charge its in-state students $7,993 for tuition and fees and non-resident students $21,569. That's still the lowest in the state among public four-year colleges and universities.
But for a school known for serving a diverse student body, including many students from lower income families, any increase could pinch.
Back in February, Metro State celebrated a major milestone: federal designation as an Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). It's been years in the making. The university claims it serves more Latino students than any public college or university in Colorado.
The pledge to hold the line on college tuition came with just under $121 million in general fund support as approved in the 2019-20 Long Appropriations Bill.
And Metro State will get just over $7 million from a $121 million pot that’s supposed to be used to keep tuition flat.
In an April 5 Facebook post, Polis said he was "more optimistic than every before that we’re going to keep tuition flat next year when our budget gets its final approval in the coming weeks." He signed the budget on April 18.
JBC Chair Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City acknowledged that Metro State asked for an allowance to raise tuition by 3 percent.
Unlike schools such as the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, Metro State doesn't draw many out-of-state students paying much higher tuition to help it boost revenue.
"For them, it's mostly a question of how the higher ed funding formula specifically impacts the university," Moreno explained. "Even when we do these large increases for higher ed, it doesn't result in that much of a benefit for Metro. That's a problem with the higher ed funding formula. The JBC recognizes this and hopes to address it in the future."
At a Department of Higher Education budget hearing with the JBC on Jan. 11, Metro State was asked if it supports the general fund request submitted by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper in November 2018 and then by Polis after he took office. Both requests included the tuition buydown.
The university, in its written response, said Metro “appreciates this level of proposed increase in state support for Higher Education. However, MSU Denver‘s level of state support per student FTE (full-time equivalent) not only has been lower than other institutions in Colorado, but also lower than our peer institutions nationally.
"A tuition reduction is not an option for MSU Denver,” the university wrote. “The 13% increase in state support is very important to MSU Denver; but since state support is only 25% of our budget, this increase only amounts to a 3% increase to the university’s total operating budget.”
Therefore, the 13% increase in state support "will force us to potentially raise tuition in order to cover our mandatory costs, which include investing in our personnel in FY 2019-20. Several years of little to no salary adjustments is having a negative impact on the retention of our faculty and professional staff. Because national studies show that attracting and supporting quality faculty and staff is a critical factor in student retention and completion rates, correcting these salary discrepancies must be a top priority for MSU Denver.”
That’s not the only thing Metro needs additional tuition dollars for, the response indicated. In addition to boosting faculty and staff pay, the university is “planning to strategically invest in more wrap-around student services and career-based learning initiatives. These new initiatives will have a direct impact on student retention, graduation, and job placement, but require additional funding above inflation rates.”
In a news release issued after Metro’s trustees approved the 3 percent tuition increase on May 10, the university said that the school faces a $1.5 million deficit despite the increase in state support.
A spokesperson for Metro State replied to a request for comment from Colorado Politics Monday, pointing out that the governor's letter that accompanied the budget signing acknowledged that while the budget increases funding by $121 million to hold tuition flat, "Metro State University is permitted a 3 percent increase."
The response also says the university faces a $4.5 million deficit, rather than the $1.5 million deficit announced in the May 10 news release.
The news release doesn’t mention that Metro is the only four-year public institution in Colorado that is increasing tuition rates in 2019-20.
“Despite these changes, MSU Denver will remain among the leaders in affordable tuition and fees in Colorado. Total tuition and fees would be close to $2,000 less than the statewide average for four-year schools,” the release said.
Metro State is also increasing student fees by 5 percent in 2019-20.
Metro enrolls more than 15,000 FTE students (one FTE student equals 30 credit hours), based on 2017 statistics from the Department of Higher Education, and 97 percent are Colorado residents, the highest percentage of any four-year public institution in the state. According to a 2016-17 fact sheet, 40 percent are students of color and 31.6 percent are the first in their families to go to college.
Metro State also has the worst graduation rate among the state's four-year public colleges and universities. Just 8 percent graduate in four years; at six years, 32.5 percent of students finish with a degree, according to 2017 numbers from the Department of Higher Education.