Chinese students running on campus

Colorado voters had a come to ... moment in the 2019 election. They decided to keep their $20-$250 TABOR tax rebates.  The defeat of Proposition CC resulted from a huge turnout in bright red El Paso County, losses in purple Jeffco and Arapahoe Counties, and tepid wins in bright blue Boulder and Denver Counties.

Proposition CC would have provided more funds for higher education, public schools and transportation. Citizens decided that they wouldn’t trust state legislators to fulfill those commitments.   

The impact on young people especially will be hard felt. Public schoolteacher salaries, especially for new teachers, are uncompetitive with other professions in even the most affluent school districts in the state.  A starting BA degree salary in Cherry Creek School District is $41,845.  A starting salary with a BA and 15 years of experience is $43,938.  According to salary estimates from Glassdoor and PayScale, entry level engineers in the Denver area start at $54,600/year.  Software engineers start at $60,000.  

The disparity makes the teaching profession a difficult choice.  Many districts have “de-bruced” from TABOR, but lack of funds from the state prevents school districts from paying enough to help young teachers, many with substantial college debt, from keeping up in this world.

Gov. Jared Polis offered his budget this month, and one of his most pressing worries is the cost of higher education in the state.  In-state tuition at the University of Colorado, depending on the field of study and financial aid, is between $11,109 and $12,532/year.  Colorado State University hits $9,152 and University of Northern Colorado runs $7,374. UC Denver charges $7,776.  Metropolitan State University sits at $6,062.  Community colleges in the state come in at about $3,470. None of these figures includes books, fees or room and board.

Compare our CU tuition number to neighboring states, based on numbers from CollegeCalc.org: University of Nebraska-Lincoln sits at $7,125, University of Kansas at $9,818, University of Oklahoma at $4,788, University of Wyoming at $6,289, University of Utah at $7,,697, and University of New Mexico at $9,960.

Further compare our CU tuition to the University of California campuses including international top schools University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Los Angeles at $12,510.  California community colleges run from a tuition high at Foothills Community College District in Silicon Valley at $1,395 to Los Angeles City College at $1,196.  California Polytechnical Institute and all other California State Universities charge $5,742.

City University of New York campuses run $6,530 and State University of New York campuses run $6,670.  Mesa State College in Grand Junction costs $7,560.

The saddest number is in Colorado’s community college system.  California passed a bill this year that plugs $42.6 million into the California College Promise program to make year two of community college free for 33,000 students.  California community colleges educate 2.1 million students, 25 percent of the nation, according to CNN.  Several other states, including Tennessee and Oregon, about Colorado’s size, have committed to providing free community college tuition.

It's easy to see that a $3,470 tuition bill, with much more for books and other fees at Colorado’s community colleges, strains families in the $35,000 to $50,000 salary range.  New York State, on the other hand, has committed $163 million/year to provide free tuition not just for community colleges but for its CUNY and SUNY universities.  

What explains Colorado’s underfunding of public schools and higher education?  Is it the Colorado paradox that assumes the state will succeed because all smart people move to Colorado, thus making up for what we lack in public support for education?  Is it a belief that our elected legislators won’t act faithfully in support of educating our young people?  Is it an inability of the pro-public education community to make its case to the people?  All of the above?

The pressing question that Coloradans must face, sooner rather than later, is this: at what point will underfunding public education lead to a generation of young people who won’t be able to compete in the nation’s economy and prosper with their families in this state?  

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.

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