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Colorado’s “Grand Experiment” (spring 2003)
Colorado’s Voucher Program
COLORADO’S HIGHER EDUCATION voucher plan–the only one in the nation—has been less than a resounding success so far.
Many of the goals of the program, described in National CrossTalk’s spring 2003 issue, have not been met:
• One aim was to increase participation by low-income students; instead, enrollment of these students has declined eight percent, the Colorado Department of Higher Education has reported.
• Another goal was to increase enrollment in public higher education, but total enrollment has remained about the same since the program began in fall 2005. Two years later, the numbers were up slightly in four-year institutions but had declined in the two-year community colleges.
• Student financial aid has remained at about the national average.
• Implementation at Colorado’s 15 two-year community colleges has been especially difficult. Many students don’t enroll until just before classes begin, so there has not been enough time to inform them about the availability of vouchers.
• State reimbursement for vouchers has been slow, officials report. “The philosophy of ‘the money should follow the student’ has not held true,” Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, told the Rocky Mountain News in the spring of 2008.
• Although legislation to implement what is officially known as the College Opportunity Fund removed public colleges and universities from the spending restrictions of the state’s Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), this has not resulted in the increased revenue that many college officials had expected.
Escaping from TABOR limits “did not provide the tuition flexibility that institutions were seeking,” said David Longanecker, executive director of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).
“It became very clear that the governor and the legislature were not going to take their hands off tuition (policy),” said Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Despite these restraints, however, the University of Colorado’s flagship campus in Boulder was able to raise tuition 23.9 percent in two years.
Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado system, said “a drop in the voucher amount also hurt.” Initially expected to be between $4,000 and $4,500 per student, the voucher was worth only $2,760 in 2007.
Voucher supporters say the state has done a poor job of informing prospective students about the availability of the stipends. They also charge that the program has been poorly managed.
“A lot of our institutions don’t believe it was implemented in the way that was intended,” said David Skaggs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “The question is whether that’s the fault of the theory or the fault of implementation.”
To answer that and other voucher questions, Skaggs’ department has commissioned a WICHE study, to be completed by spring 2009. That means significant changes in the voucher program are not likely to be made until 2010, if then.