Colorado lowest in the nation for state support to research universities

Dead last.

That’s where Colorado finds itself when it comes to state funding per student for public research universities.

The state’s two major public research universities — Colorado State University and the University of Colorado — received $3,417 in state funding per student in 2010, the lowest in the nation.

These numbers, released last month by the National Science Foundation, show public research universities in peril across the country.

State support for the country’s 101 major public research universities fell 20 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 2002 and 2010.

Two states, Colorado and New Hampshire, saw state funding drop 50 percent during the same time period. Only seven states saw an increase in state support.

“There are a couple of factors that contribute to that,” said Dan Arvizu, the director and Chief Executive of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory and chairman of the National Science Board. “One is the cost of education is going up so that increases demand for the funds and the number of students is also growing.”

“We’ve tried not to attach a ‘who’s to blame’ conclusion to the results,” he added.

Public research institutions are important, Arvizu said, because they perform essential research and train a large proportion of the nation’s scientists and engineers. They’re also spread across the country, allowing access to any qualified student.

“They’re part of the fabric of this country,” Arvizu said. “In fact I think they’re what make this country strong in terms of competitiveness and any erosion of that national asset, I think is hugely disturbing  to those of us who are trying to promote science and engineering education for national benefit.”

In August, CSU President Tony Frank and CU Chancellor Philip DiStefano released a joint opinion piece in the Denver Post before the Rocky Mountain Showdown. The article detailed the  financial impact CSU and CU–Boulder have in Colorado.

The combined systems generate $10.5 billion in total economic impact, are one of the state’s largest employers and create hundreds of high tech spin-off companies directly related to research done at the universities.

The NSF is especially concerned about the growing financial disparity between public research universities and their private counterparts.

This could lead to a migration of talented faculty and students to private universities, creating a “two-tiered” system, with a greater concentration of research and development in fewer locations.

“I think it is a concern,” said CSU Vice President of Research Bill Farland. “We’ve continued to set research records here at CSU so that makes our faculty quite desirable. We risk that issue of retention of those faculty because of offers from private institutions that are not quite feeling the same pinch.”

As state appropriations shrink, tuition rates are often increased to make up for the the loss of money. At CSU, tuition has increased 54 percent over the last four years to its current rate of $6,875 per year.

Last year, the state reduced funding to CSU by $2.25 million, less than what was initially expected, leaving university officials cautiously optimistic the trend has bottomed out.

“The question remains whether or not that will continue to improve,” Farland said. “Given the state of the economy and that fact we’re seeing increases in some revenues and the trend seems to be turning, our hope is that we can reverse this trend and at worse we’ll see a level budget.”

Declines in state funding can have far reaching consequences, said CU spokesman Bronson Hilliard.

“It’s reached a very critical moment,” he said. “The critical moment is when we start to see federal institutions looking at CU and CSU and saying ‘you know, the state of Colorado is not supporting these two institutions. We’re not sure if they’re a good investment of research funding anymore.’”

Even though the NSF report was issued last month, 2010 was the last year that national statistics were available.

Since then, state funding has further decreased at CSU by $25.25 million to the current $91.2 million for fiscal year 2012-13.

On the other end of the spectrum, Wyoming led the nation in 2010 in funding per student at $16,986 for its single major public research university.

Senior Reporter Austin Briggs can be reached at news@collegian.com.