November 26, 2003

Education in Colorado

My home state of Colorado is magnificent in so many ways. In other ways, my home state embarrasses me. Its senatorial contingent is embarrassing. So is its non-commitment to education.

Simply put, the state does not adequately fund education.

K-12 funding is weak. Colorado ranks 50th (last) in K-12 spending per $1000 of income. Here's more gloomy numbers from the Colorado Legislative Council.

Funding for higher education is similarly weak. Colorado's public universities would be downright atrocious were it not for the fact that they are in Colorado. Location gives the state a powerful recruitment edge that has attracted top-flight faculty in many disciplines. Unfortunately, the state of Colorado chooses to use its location as an excuse to skate by, rather than as a basis for building world-class institutions.

Its law school and medical school both exemplify this lack of commitment.

Colorado's law school has been caught with its pants down. The ABA is threatening Colorado with the loss of its accreditation if it does not find a way to replace its "inadequate" law building, hire more full-time faculty, and increase faculty supervision over student internships, among other things.

Of course, the law school points out that funding a new building is difficult with the budget shortfalls that Colorado and virtually all other states are facing. Not all schools, however, are faced with replacing inadequate campus buildings, and it's reasonable to ask why Colorado allowed the problems with the Fleming Law Building to fester for so many years.

It is true that resident tuition for law students at Colorado is among the lowest in the country. As the state's only public law school, the decision to emphasize access over excellence might be defended--except that Colorado also chooses to emphasize its exclusiveness and student selectivity. It's not clear just what kind of school the University of Colorado is trying to maintain.

The medical school has similar problems. It is instructive to read about the school's Denison Library:

Due to the meager level of state funding it receives, Denison Library struggles to maintain the range and depth of information resources required by the many specialized programs of the campus.

"Struggles?" Certainly compared to its peers:

Other significant developments in this period include. . .comparisons with peer institutions that indicate budget and staffing levels below the norm.

Tip: if a university can't support its library, something's probably wrong. The trick is identifying what, exactly, the problem is. One problem, clearly, is inadequate support from the state. Just like the law school, the medical school is faced with a state legislature that's tougher to squeeze money from than water is from a stone.

But what else? Have the deans of the two institutions been effectively selling the value of their schools to the legislature? Or have they been content to use the legislature's stinginess as an excuse for their own lack of effectiveness and leadership?

Questions like this beg to be asked. Until they are, Colorado's universities will do OK, but it won't excel. The law school won't improve. The medical school, despite its move to the Fitzsimons campus in aurora, won't ever be an elite research school.

Posted by Carey at November 26, 2003 09:56 AM