Dear Colleagues and Students:

When I e-mailed my “have a good summer” message to you some weeks ago, I fully intended not to bother you until next fall, but events compel me to intrude on your summer to inform you of a major financial aid restructuring announcement we’re making today at the state capitol. The basic story is captured in the following statements and link: But I think that the background behind this announcement may be of interest to members of our campus community.

To fully understand the background for today’s announcement, we need to understand our current status and position as a university. In terms of accomplishing our missions of teaching, research, and service, my assessment is that CSU is fundamentally performing at a very high level of efficiency and effectiveness. This is not to say that we do not have room for improvement in each of these areas and that we are not striving to improve — we do and we are. But we are working to improve from a strong and enviable position in terms of delivery on our tripartite mission.

Consider the following with respect to enrollment and teaching.

  • We’re in our 3rd year of record enrollment.
  • We enroll students from every county in Colorado as well as around the world, and we’re on track to continue to enroll and graduate more Coloradans than any other campus.
  • We produce more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates to help drive the state’s economy than any other campus, and we produce more STEM high school teachers than any other university in Colorado.
  • 1 in 4 of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and we have the same percentage of low-income students we had two decades ago.
  • We beat the predicted averages for graduation rates of our students, and our graduates leave CSU with lower-than-average debt loads.
  • We graduate minority students within 1 percentage point of majority graduation rates — still 1 percent too large, but unheard of in terms of the small size of this gap for a comprehensive research university.

We are also excelling at our research mission.

  • Our faculty will set another record this year in terms of research awards. Research remains the largest portion of the university budget — unusual even for the largest of public research universities.
  • We’re proud to remain the top extramurally funded institution per faculty member in the state, tops in our CCHE peer group, and among the highest in the nation of public universities without medical schools (large clinical trials can skew these data).
  • We’re well-positioned for the future with research orientations in food (supporting agriculture — one of our state’s most vital industries), water, the new energy economy, environmental sciences, and biomedicine — issues that will remain significant, societal challenges and which we will help address.
  • Our embedded business development teams are creating start-up companies with jobs that help our state’s economy.
  • The scholarship and creativity demonstrated across the breadth of the university – sciences, humanities and the arts — is strong and improving at an impressive pace.

There is a strong culture of engagement at CSU.

  • You can see it in our past with the creation of the Peace Corps; and in the present when we produce more Peace Corps volunteers per capita than any other public university.
  • You can see it locally with our student involvement with Cans Around the Oval and Project Homeless Connect and around the world with our award-winning “Business Peace Corps” — the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise program housed in the top-ranked public College of Business in Colorado.
  • You can see it in our historical outreach programs of Extension and 4-H and the efforts we’re making to connect with our partners, the county commissioners. We are making very real and meaningful efforts to revitalize Extension, to assure it meets the diverse needs of Colorado’s communities in agriculture and rural community development, and to assure that 4-H and its strong STEM programs are available to every child throughout Colorado who wants to participate.
  • We have closed old, under-utilized Agriculture Experiment Stations and have reinvested the resources into modernizing the remaining stations. We’re working on an agricultural advisory board so that the remaining stations interface closely with the needs of Colorado’s agricultural industry.
  • We’re working to assure the Colorado State Forest Service and the Colorado Water Institute are both adequately funded and oriented to meet their important missions of sustaining two of Colorado’s vital natural resources.
  • We’re working within our existing $20M on-line education program, with CSU Global Campus, and through a variety of partnerships with community college campuses to create a network of new education delivery into communities across rural Colorado, making access not a passive act of reception on our campus, but an active push to our state.
  • CSU arts and Ram athletics are making wonderful strides forward, enriching the lives of our community, engaging our students, and representing to many citizens of Colorado our university commitment to excellence.

In short, CSU is fully engaged as Colorado’s university, functioning very successfully in teaching, research and service.

Of course the elephant in the room when assessing the status of the university is the fiscal challenges that confront us. But even here, there is much of which we can be proud.

  • As we approached the financial crisis, we knew we needed to demonstrate that we were accountable — good stewards of the public trust. That’s why we created the Financial Accountability Report, available on the President’s website. It is designed so anyone can see where every dollar comes from, where every dollar is spent, and how that’s changed over time. We’re proud of our transparency as a public institution.
  • We knew we needed to control expenses. By the end of the next fiscal year, we’ll have taken a 23% expense reduction — nearly $30M from our state support of $130M — over 3 years. We’ve done so largely via administrative cuts which have spared our classrooms and our labs. Our employees are entering the third year without salary increases, and — bluntly — we have fewer people and they’re working harder.
  • And in the midst of all of these challenges, access has remained a top priority as financial aid is, for the fourth year in a row, the largest single discretionary portion of our budget with roughly 1/3 of our tuition increase — over $4M — going back into assuring access to excellence.
  • We’re very proud that at the end of the next fiscal year, when federal stimulus bridge funds are expended, CSU’s budget will be fully balanced.

Despite all of this, we know that the state faces additional fiscal challenges — a cliff remains for the state of Colorado, as I’ve mentioned in previous e-mails, and not all state agencies or even all universities and colleges have been able to balance their budgets as we have. Thus, we can expect to inherit portions of someone else’s cliff as we go forward. There is risk here for our state: Colorado needs a healthy, vibrant, and diverse web of higher- education institutions to meet the needs of all our citizens.

For CSU, this risk is fundamental: We need to assure that we have the ability to fulfill our mission as the state’s land-grant university, a mission that requires us to provide public access to an excellent research university education. To do this, we must assure that we simultaneously remain affordable and have the quality faculty, research, and support programs needed to assure access to excellence and access to success.

We face this risk at the same time that the state’s demographics are changing. Many K-12 students come from families where neither parent went to college. These potential first-generation students are far less likely to attend college, and the data are compelling that their parents often begin to reach the conclusion that college is not for their children or not affordable in the 3rd-5th grade range. Experts believe that the subsequent 7-9 years of parental verbal and non-verbal messaging are likely important factors in the low higher-education participation rates of these students. The data — and our own experience — also show that despite increased investments in financial aid, 1st generation families are often overwhelmed by the complexity of filing the FAFSA and waiting for universities to package a mind-numbing array of financial assistance options. Faced with this complexity, they frequently conclude that affordability must be a gimmick and fail to even attempt to access the programs and assistance that have been put in place to assist them.

Further, Colorado has the largest higher-education participation rate gap in the nation for Hispanic students — something that must be of great concern to us if we are interested in providing the transformative power of a university education to Colorado’s future citizens.

Against the backdrop of these risks and changes, the hypothesis that increased tuition inherently means limited affordability and hence limited access stands out clearly. As apparently intuitive as this hypothesis appears, however, the current data simply do not support it. In fact, the data to date lead to a single, well-supported conclusion: that increased tuition with aggressive investment in financial aid has allowed us to maintain access and improve success over the past two decades, even in the face of declining state support.

Is such an approach sustainable over the longer term? That is a key question we must explore with our fellow citizens and their elected representatives. But I’m confident that for the next five years, CSU has room within the national and state higher education marketplaces to use tuition and cost containment to assure access and build excellence while giving our state government time to solve the riddle of funding higher education.

I believe that an aggressive financial aid plan that takes advantage of the past several years of significant financial aid investments, recent enhancements in federal Pell Grant funding, the Campaign for Colorado State, and the benefits of a simple, understandable marketing message can position Colorado State well as we move into the next decade. So today, after more than a month of intensive analysis and discussions with the leadership of our employee groups, students, and our governing board, we are prepared to announce Colorado State University’s Commitment to Colorado.

  • Undergraduate students whose families make less than $57,000 a year (the median family income in Colorado) will not pay more than half of our standard tuition rate.
  • Students from lower-income (Pell eligible) families will not pay tuition or general fees to attend CSU.

These commitments will make CSU among the most affordable educational opportunities in Colorado, and, when coupled with our high-quality programs and student success rates, will provide an exceptional opportunity to citizens of Colorado in accord with our historic Land Grant role to provide a world-class education to everyone with the talent and motivation to make a difference in our world.

Our Commitment to Colorado clearly and unambiguously addresses access and affordability of a university education for low- and lower middle-income families whose students have earned the ability to be admitted to CSU.

The plan builds on previous financial aid investments, involves some reallocation of existing financial aid resources, and requires an additional $1.8M investment in financial aid in FY12. This is roughly the equivalent of an overall 1.5% tuition increase, so we believe such an investment is very affordable within the potentially constrained parameters of our FY12 draft budget.

Such a plan is, of course, open to criticism. Even though CSU remains very affordable in the national marketplace, we are funding affordability access by charging more to families with the ability to pay more. People who care about American higher education can legitimately debate whether or not this is good policy. Ultimately, our goal is to fully fund the program with private gifts through The Campaign for Colorado State University, even two to three years down the road. But in the meantime, if our marketing is successful beyond our most optimistic projections, we will have to critically evaluate funding for the program. And, of course, any new plan can also have, despite the most thoughtful analysis, unintended consequences.

But these concerns do not, in my analysis, offset the benefits of our continued leadership in demonstrating to our state and its citizens the value of providing access to qualified students to an exceptional education at a public research university with an ongoing commitment to excellence. I believe CSU’s Commitment to Colorado is not only in alignment with our mission, it also helps demonstrate our relevance and our resolve to be a vibrant and vital part of Colorado’s future.

And if a simple, unambiguous financial aid promise that avoids policy jargon such as “effective family contribution” and “financial aid qualification level” — but speaks clearly to something families understand (income) — enables a 3rd grade teacher in a low-income area to say to a first generation parent, “Jane is intelligent; you need to know that there are programs that will fund Jane’s education,” and if such a conversation creates a different parental attitude toward Jane’s college attendance over the next 7-9 years, and if it results in a different outcome for Jane’s post-high school plans, then this program has simply also been the right thing to do. Of course, such an outcome is extraordinarily difficult to measure, as so many factors can and will influence the outcome over such a long period of time. Still, the basic premise that low- and lower middle-income families should have consistent hope that their children will have help to make the most of their potential seems to fit securely within the mission of the Land Grant University concept.

As always, I remain open to your thoughts, feedback, and concerns.

It now dawns on me that perhaps I’ve made this long enough to compete for KUNC’s suggested summer reading list … for my part on that front, I intend to fulfill my summer tradition and reread “Tom Sawyer.” But this digression is, even by my standards, remarkably off topic, so I’ll let you get back to your summer with this closing thought. I’m about to head back on the road across Colorado for most of July telling our university’s story and trying to get more people involved in the future of Colorado public higher education. It is a wonderful story and one made easy to tell by all of your efforts and talents. It remains an honor for me to represent you.

Enjoy your summer.