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A map of Colorado that pinpoints Fort Lewis College, Western Colorado University and Adams State University

Three college presidents are calling for funds to help alleviate challenges unique to their rural locations.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Photo: Adams State University | Fort Lewis College | Western Colorado University | Wikimedia Commons | Getty Images

The presidents of three rural public universities in Colorado are banding together to ask state legislators for millions of dollars in additional funding to recognize the distinctive challenges of regional institutions that operate in less populated areas.

The three institutions, Adams State and Western Colorado Universities and Fort Lewis College, are all distanced from other four-year colleges and universities by at least two hours, and their isolation creates limitations that urban and suburban institutions don’t have, their leaders say.

“While we do everything they do, we do it where it costs more,” said David Tandberg, president of Adams State, in Alamosa. “We’re fundamentally facing a different economic situation.”

“We don’t have, for instance, contractors readily available,” added Brad Baca, president of Western Colorado, in Gunnison. “When we put a project out to bid, we get one person bidding on it. And when we’re hiring adjunct faculty, we have to hire them on a full-time basis.”

The presidents say it is critical for the state to invest in their small, rural institutions and help offset these challenges if lawmakers want to ensure all Coloradans have equal access to higher education.

“If we didn’t exist, the landscape of economic vitality and prosperity of the communities in which we serve would look much different,” said Baca, who noted that these institutions disproportionately serve low-income, first-generation and racially minoritized learners. “Not only are we regional workforce providers in terms of training the teachers, the health-care workers, the small business owners, but we also … bring a lot of economic impact to our communities.”

Underfunded Institutions in an Underfunded State

Rural regional colleges across the country have historically been underfunded in comparison to state flagships, but the challenges in Colorado have been exacerbated by the state’s routinely poor performance in per-student appropriations.

According to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the Rocky Mountain State ranked 44th in the nation for per-student state funding in fiscal year 2022 at approximately $6,700 per full-time student.

So even when Governor Jared Polis released his 2024–25 higher ed budget proposal, calling for a year-over-year increase of approximately $40 million (or 4 percent), university presidents said it was not enough to cover their core minimum costs.

For the third year in a row, leaders from all 15 of the state’s colleges and universities, including the community college system, collectively signed and submitted a letter to the Legislature requesting four times the funding proposed by the governor—$160 million.

Adams, Western and Fort Lewis went one step further, asking in their own oral request at a budget hearing in January for $9 million more to account for the tolls uniquely faced by rural regional institutions.

“We’re challenged by economies of scale. So our costs generally run higher to provide education to the students we serve,” said Baca. “We don’t feel that, up to this point, has been adequately recognized in the funding models that the state uses.”

The state did alter its higher education funding formula in 2020 to better support the colleges and universities that educate larger groups of historically underserved students, many of whom attend rural regional institutions, but the presidents say it wasn’t enough of a boost to put Adams, Western and Fort Lewis on the same plane as their peers.

“The funding formula has been largely good,” Tandberg said. “But, even so, it doesn’t have any special recognition for the challenges and costs of being a small institution in a rural location. And that’s the underlying motivation for our request.”

“We’re not saying that it’s about per-FTE funding, like they get more or we get more; it’s just that you have to recognize it has to be different,” he added. “The state has a special obligation towards these three small institutions, because [they] fundamentally cannot function without the state’s support.”

Reflection of a National Trend

Andrew Koricich, executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges, or ARRC, said that what’s playing out in Colorado aligns closely with the trends he’s observed at regional institutions in rural areas across the country.

“If you’re rural located, and if you’re rural serving, there becomes a greater dependence on state funds,” he said.

For example, in Colorado, the state’s flagship institution, the University of Colorado at Boulder, only received about 10 percent of its $1.09 billion budget from the state in 2024. The three rural regionals, on the other hand, depend on the state for about half of their annual allocations.

So when state funding doesn’t cut it, larger, more selective flagship institutions can compensate by raising tuition and fees, profiting from research or boosting out-of-state enrollment numbers, Koricich noted. But public regional colleges serve a generally more limited pool of students and operate as teaching institutions, so they lack those options.

And although there’s little to no curated data documenting the trend on a national level, Koricich said ARRC looks to state statistics to back the anecdotes they hear.

“It’s more work to reach those communities; it’s more work to get those communities out the door with a credential,” Koricich said. “And if it’s more work, that means it’s more cost. But that doesn’t mean it’s a reason to abandon these institutions or the students they serve.”

A Little Goes a Long Way

If the colleges do receive the funds they’ve asked for, they would use the money to boost students’ financial, social and cultural capital by providing wraparound services both in and outside the classroom. The services would include expanding career-preparation offices, sponsoring peer-mentorship programs and implementing strategies to raise retention rates.

And following the January hearing, the rural college presidents say they feel confident that lawmakers will rise to meet their calls for investment.

Representative Shannon Bird, a Democrat and vice chair of the appropriations committee, who grew up in rural Colorado, said the presidents’ presentation brought her to tears.

“Higher education is not just about the degree. It’s a very important aspect about it, but it’s not just about the credential,” she said. “It’s about the opportunity. It’s about opening up your world vision. It’s about getting to know people different from you. It’s about getting to experience things you didn’t grow up with.”

And Senator Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican, wrote on X, “Hey @govofco your budget proposal does NOT cover core minimum costs at our Rural Universities & Colleges. [Regional institutions] are scrappy, we are innovative, we are critical to our region, our community.”

Said Baca, “Part of our message is that a little bit helps a lot at our institutions. You know, $9 million in total is budget dust to some of the bigger flagship institutions, but here, it will go a long way.”

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