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Educators support higher ed funding increase at first hearing

Testifying before the Senate Education Committee in support of Senate Bill 1 (from left to right): Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood; Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge; CU President Bruce Benson; Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia; and Mesa State President Tim Foster (photo courtesy of Twitter.com/MikeJohnstonCO)

Testifying before the Senate Education Committee in support of Senate Bill 1 (from left to right): Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood; Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge; CU President Bruce Benson; Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia; and Mesa State President Tim Foster (photo courtesy of Twitter.com/MikeJohnstonCO)

DENVER — College presidents, students and education leaders turned out at the state Capitol on Wednesday to show their support for a signature piece of the Democratic policy agenda, a proposal to make college somewhat more affordable.

Senate Bill 1, up for its first hearing before the Senate Education Committee, will allocate an additional $100 million to a  higher education budget that’s been slashed repeatedly for the past several years and imposes a year-long six percent cap on tuition rate hikes.

“This is a game changer,” said Andy Kerr. “As we’ve seen tuition and college costs going up, it’s time to turn the corner and start the needle moving back the other direction.”

The legislation, a key piece of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2014 policy agenda, was negotiated with university presidents who agreed to cap tuition rate hikes at six percent in exchange for a budget allocation that amounts to an 11 percent increase overall.

“It gives us the opportunity to make a historic investment in higher education, something we’ve not seen in many years,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who noted that the economic downtown forced significant cuts to the state’s higher education budget over the past five years.

“This is good news for students and families.”

According to Garcia, Colorado has cut higher education funding by 26 percent since 2008, when the economic downturn began.

“And it would have been a lot worse if not for federal stimulus dollars,” he added.

As a result, students and families have had to absorb a larger percentage of college costs as most institutions have had no choice but to raise tuition and impose additional fees.

“State funding remains critical for us,” said Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado system, who thanked lawmakers for taking action.

“This is about coming together for the good of all of Colorado and saying thank you for what you’re doing.”

“We’re trying to hang on to the best higher ed system in the country and that costs money,” said Tim Foster, the president of Mesa State University in Grand Junction.

“Every institution is doing what it can to absorb cuts. We don’t have deans. We’ve double our fundraising, we’re hustling every way we can — but at the end of the day, we haven’t had a tuition increase our student government has not endorsed.”

Following the university presidents, a number of students are set to testify about their struggles with the rising cost of college.

It’s unclear if the Senate Education Committee will vote on the measure Wednesday or put off that vote until its next meeting.

The proposal is expected to pass the Senate and House and be signed into law by Hickenlooper, who is up for reelection this fall.