Premature Imitation?

Minnesota's governor wants his state to copy a Colorado college financing system that hasn't begun, let alone been proven to work.

January 20, 2005

Colorado's new system for financing colleges and student aid if already attracting imitators. Which may be a bit premature, given that it hasn't even taken effect yet.

Minnesota's governor, Tim Pawlenty, proposed in his State of the State address Tuesday that Minnesota adopt a new college financing setup based on the Colorado model, under which most state funds for higher education flow to students (in the form of "vouchers" to attend colleges) instead of to the institutions themselves. Pawlenty said he had asked his chief higher education adviser to craft a proposal that  "would move Minnesota further toward funding public higher education students rather than institutions."

"Under this approach," the governor said, "colleges will need to be more accountable to their customers, more responsive to the marketplace and more accountable for results to succeed."

The Colorado model, known as the Colorado Opportunity Fund, has been described and dissected as an innovative system that has the potential to reshape the way states finance the postsecondary education of their citizens.

But at this point, the system is completely untested -- it doesn't even start until this summer. So it may be unwise for other states to base their own policy making on it, some observers say.

"I have a lot of reservations about the Colorado plan, and it would at least be nice to be proven wrong before other states jump on the bandwagon," says Donald E. Heller, associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. "It's clear from his speech that the governor isn't putting together a committee to study whether to do this -- he's putting together a plan to do this. Given that this has yet to take effect, it's hard not to conclude that this is extremely premature."

Like several others who've studied the Colorado voucher plan, Heller, who is also senior research associate at Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education, is concerned that the system is almost certainly going to result in significantly higher tuitions, without necessarily ensuring that the state will increase the size of vouchers to keep pace.

Backers of the voucher system "say the legislature and state will be more willing to spend money on higher education if money is going into the pockets of students instead of universities," Heller says, "but it's still to be seen whether that really happens," which makes it "risky" for Minnesota to be going down this path now.


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