Democratic state lawmakers have drafted legislation aimed at making college a little less expensive.
Last week, the College Affordability Act became the first bill to be introduced in the Senate this legislative session. The bill would cap college tuition rate increases, and would make more money available for students seeking financial aid.
Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, a bill sponsor, said the legislation is about “making sure every kid who graduates in Colorado — with the skills and ability and the grades — has access to higher education.”
“I really think where we've gone the last few years, with the incredible tuition increases that we've seen, is a lot the institutions having not just priced at-risk students out, but also pricing out a lot of our middle class students, even with getting loans and financial aid,” Kerr said.
Under current law, colleges and universities can increase tuition 9 percent annually. Senate Bill 1 would cap tuition increases for undergraduate students at 6 percent.
Kerr, who serves as chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, said that state budget cuts in higher education are partly to blame for skyrocketing tuition costs in recent years.
“The years that we really slashed funding to higher education are the years that tuition really increased quite a bit,” he said.
The bill would increase higher education funding by more than $100 million. That's in addition to whatever funds are appropriated through the annual budget. Most of that money would go to colleges and universities, by way of the College Opportunity Fund, which provides tuition stipends for undergraduate students.
The rest of the funding, $40 million worth, would go to various financial aid programs.
The bill is a priority for Senate Democrats and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Much of Senate President Morgan Carroll's speech opening during the first day of the legislative session focused on Senate Bill 1.
In her remarks, Carroll, an Aurora Democrat, talked about her grandfather's and her mother's struggles to afford college. She also shared her own story about having to work multiple jobs after high school so that she could save money to go to college.
“Access to college or trade and technical education changes lives,” Carroll said. “Yet, the opportunities that were there for three generations before me … are now going the wrong way, moving backwards — and college is less affordable now than it was when I was in school.”
The bill puts in statute the $100 million funding request for the Department of Higher Education that Hickenlooper made to the Joint Budget Committee in November.
Typically, education funding is dealt with through the budget process, and not a separate appropriation. Carroll told reporters recently that she wanted a separate bill that includes the cap and Hickenlooper's funding proposal, because she feels the two are "connected."
In Hickenlooper's State of the State speech on Jan. 9, the governor received a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle, when he addressed the measure in his remarks.
Matt Connelly, the spokesman for Senate Republicans, said Senate leadership is currently studying the bill.
Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Douglas County, said after the governor's speech that she is "concerned" about the capping the tuition rate at 6 percent.
"Because in some ways that gives (higher education institutions) permission to raise tuition 6 percent," she said.
In response, Kerr said it is important for colleges to understand that the 6 percent "is a cap, not a floor."
Carroll acknowledged that the bill isn't a total remedy for reining in tuition costs.
"This is reversing a trend," Carroll said. "It's not going to suddenly make college more affordable to all folks."
Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, a bill co-sponsor, said the legislation should be considered a jobs bill, in addition to being an education measure.
“We always hear, 'It's about jobs. We need to create jobs,'” Jahn said. “You go to the cause and stop trying to put Band-Aids on symptoms. Why are more people not going to college? Well, it's because people can't afford it. So if you really want to do something solid for economic develop, let's get people educated.”