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Higher ed funding plan makes officials hesitate

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Experts in higher education are perplexed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty's use of Colorado as a shining example of college-funding reform.

In his State of the State address last week, Pawlenty said he was intrigued by that state's system of guiding two-thirds of its higher education appropriations to students rather than the public colleges themselves. He directed administration officials to study whether a similar approach should be adopted in Minnesota.

Colorado's law hasn't been copied in other states so far.

"States wouldn't do this unless they had a gun to their head, and Colorado had a fiscal gun to its head," said Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He called Colorado's program a "Hail Mary pass ... borne not out of innovation, but out of desperation and necessity."

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It is a product of that state's taxpayer's bill of rights, a 1992 law that limits spending and makes it more difficult for government to raise revenue. So when the state's economy hit a rough patch, leaders had to cut back on higher education funding. And colleges and universities were prevented from increasing tuition to fill the funding void.

As a result, Colorado decided to change its system to appropriate up to about $2,400 for each resident college student who applies for the aid. The money goes to the college they attend, a sleight of hand that exempts it from the state spending law.

Minnesota shouldn't emulate Colorado, said University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks. He called it "a recipe to erode the strength and capacity of the university to support its educational and research programs."

Rich Schweigert, chief financial officer of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, said the system helps make college funding more transparent. He said it could spare higher education from cuts because parents and students will see a direct effect if government tries to cut that funding and will protest.

Pawlenty has asked for the study to be completed by next year, and any implementation of a new system wouldn't take place for at least another year after that.

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