Interview: CU’s Todd Saliman on the cost of higher education and diversity on campus

Warner: Couldn’t you raise more funds? In other words, when you need to build a new building or a new stadium, there are all kinds of money to collect, couldn’t you do that in this arena?

Saliman: Generally, when we fundraise, donations are very limited by contract. So it ends with what the donor is interested in, like a building or a program or a scholarship, things like that.

Warner: So you’re saying that if you went to donors and just said, “Hey, our salaries are low, help us strengthen them at all levels,” that wouldn’t be a winning message.

Saliman: That wouldn’t be a winning message. The cost associated with increased salaries is an ongoing cost, where donors often provide gifts for a one-time benefit.

Warner: You were Governor Bill Ritter’s budget man during the 2008 recession. At that time, you and the administration introduced the negative factor. This is a tool that has withheld billions of dollars from K-12 schools in Colorado since its inception. It’s like a giant IOU for the districts. Do you think that played a role in how many high school graduates went on to college? This is a particularly low rate in Colorado.

Saliman: The negative factor – now called the fiscal stabilization factor – is something that was implemented during the great recession when we cut billions of dollars from the state budget, and that was one of the strategies to make sure we try to spread the impact of the economic downturn on the state budget.

Warner: It was a very difficult time for the state.

Saliman: It was a very difficult time and it was one of the very last things we did because it was a priority for the governor, because [it was] a priority for me, to protect primary and secondary education and essential state services. The negative factor, or fiscal stabilization factor, persists. The legislator strives to eliminate it. Our schools are underfunded in Colorado, as is higher education, and this underfunding is likely a contributing factor to high school graduation rates.

Warner: Is this a legacy of democratic leadership? In other words, the last three administrations have been democratic.

Saliman: No. I’ve worked with quite a few governors, and quite a few legislators and legislatures, and they’ve all supported higher education. We have challenges in our state and we’ve had a few recessions along the way, which of course are bumps in the road. But because of some of our constitutional funding restrictions, it’s difficult to adequately fund higher education, to adequately fund K-12.

Warner: I imagine you are pointing at least in part to TABOR, the taxpayer’s bill of rights.

Saliman: I am, and we’re again in a situation where the TABOR surpluses are going to be huge and those dollars could be directed to K-12, could be directed to higher education to address some of these issues.

Warner: Senator Bernie Sanders has again called for the cancellation of all student debt. Would this be a healthy step for the country?

Saliman: These general approaches to things, when it comes to debt or free universities, I’m not sure that’s the best use of money. I think it would be good to take a more targeted approach and really focus on the people who need it the most. That being said, there is a lot of student debt in our country. It is very important, when thinking about student debt, to separate the conversation between public and private institutions. When you’re a resident student and go to school at an in-state institution in any state, it’s much, much more affordable than many people think.

The one I think we should really focus on first is Pell and the doubling of Pell grants.

Warner: It’s the federal grants.

Saliman: It’s the Federal Pell Grant, and these grants are available to students who attend public institutions and private institutions. They are focused on low-income students, and we actually led the effort to write a letter to our federal delegation from all Colorado institutions, public and private institutions together, asking them to double Pell.

Warner: Thank you very much for being with us.

Saliman: Thank you for taking the time to discuss.

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