Tony Frank: On college affordability

With the start of the Colorado legislative session, it’s a good time to talk about state funding, tuition, and return on investment. The legislators we elect to balance all of our competing priorities have, as they always do, a tough job ahead of them. But they’re committed to doing what’s best for Colorado, and I’m hopeful the session will generate investments in Colorado’s future by sustaining Colorado public higher education.

When I make that statement, I’m often asked why I’m hopeful. It’s a fair question.

A combination of misunderstanding, misinformation, and misguided public policy has left America’s public colleges and universities under extreme pressure. The narrative that has become accepted today is that college costs are out of control, driving student debt that threatens our economy, and all for a product that is increasingly irrelevant.

Students wonder about the ROI of a college education (when it actually remains an excellent investment), well-intentioned legislators attempt to regulate tuition (without realizing they are risking damage to one portion of the higher education sector — public institutions — that is not driving student debt); and many citizens fail to realize that they “paid their way” through college only because the generations before them covered the first 75 percent of the cost (a situation that today is exactly the opposite).

Since this is so negative, why bring it up? Well, as a scientist, I’m stubborn about data. And the simple fact is that this widely accepted narrative — that costs and student debt are out of control — just is not true.

At public colleges and universities, nearly half our students graduate debt-free, and those who have debt have debt-to-salary ratios largely unchanged through the past four decades. Loan default rates by students who graduate from public colleges and universities are among the lowest in the nation. And the ROI on an education for our students — measured in employment, wage gap, or lifetime earnings — is indisputably high. Indeed, one of the highest correlations with “life satisfaction,” is level of education, according to the Gallup-Purdue Index.

This occurs in Colorado against a backdrop where we are proud to produce a college graduate at a lower cost to taxpayers than any other state – while maintaining a “middle of the pack” position in terms of the national tuition marketplace.

It’s not to say higher education finance is where it needs to be – there are students who struggle, and families that are daunted by the cost of education. Any national data I might cite doesn’t diminish the truth of their experience, but we have the tools and resources to assist those who are most in need of support — and doing so is a longstanding priority of the CSU System.

We will continue to focus on access and excellence – something that is increasingly important because higher education remains the surest path to hope and opportunity for people across our state. This story of the importance of higher education needs to be told. For that reason, the CSU System — in collaboration with the University of Colorado and the Colorado Community College System — is bringing in Dr. Sandy Baum, the nation’s foremost expert on student debt, to advise legislators and the governor as we engage with Governor Polis’ higher education roadmap, aimed at what has been our shared goal for generations: affordably graduating more students with the skills to change their lives and, in doing so, to change our world.

So that’s why I’m hopeful. Being brought up a Cubs fan, I was raised on hope, but this hope is more well-grounded than most of those seasons! We have a wonderful story to tell, and we will tell it with pride … and with the best data available. I look forward to sharing more information and analyses from Dr. Baum’s visit in an upcoming newsletter.


Sign up to receive the print edition of STATE, the magazine of the CSU System.
3D magazine with the Winter 2021 cover