NEW REPORT: University of Colorado System Used COVID-19 Pandemic to Make Deep Cuts, Impacting Education Quality and Employee Wages

Monday, May 24, 2021

New report undercuts CU's narrative that layoffs, furloughs, and department budget cuts were a financial necessity during the pandemic;

Better budget choices were available: choices that prioritize good jobs, affordable education, educational access, and Colorado's communities;

UCW-CWA 7799 is calling on CU to shift its budget priorities, make transparent budget decisions, provide a living wage for all employees, and impose temporary pause on debt-financed capital construction projects

BOULDER – The University of Colorado System (CU) used the COVID-19 pandemic to make a series of drastic budget cuts – oftentimes masked as financial imperatives – that were passed on to their workforce and undermined CU's mission to be a premier, accessible public university, according to a new report written by the United Campus Workers Colorado, Communications Workers of America (UCW-CWA 7799). UCW-CWA 7799 represents members of the University of Colorado's diverse workforce – including part-time and full-time university staff, faculty, and graduate and undergraduate laborers.

The report, "Questionable Decisions: A review of the University of Colorado’s budget choices and priorities," details how a chronic lack of state funding has forced CU into a "business model" reliant on tuition revenue and debt financing to make ends meet – oftentimes prioritizing "enrollments over teaching, financial health of the system over the needs of its workers, and a business model over education in ways that are bad for students, bad for workers, and bad for Colorado." The data provided in the report undercuts CU's narrative that layoffs, furloughs, and department budget cuts were a financial necessity during the pandemic – and, in fact, better budget choices were available: choices that prioritize good jobs, affordable education, educational access, and Colorado's communities.

*** On Monday, May 24 at 6pm MT: UCW Colorado is hosting a Budget Town Hall to review the report's findings. Sign up here if you'd like to attend. ***

"The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us in a myriad of different ways. Resulting budget cuts have had a deep, and likely lasting, impact on public education. As CU goes forward with FY22 budget planning, we want to bring light to these major budget issues while emphasizing the misplaced priorities in CU's budget planning and related decision-making processes. CU's budget decisions highlight a tuition-driven 'business model' that has de facto privatized public education to the detriment of employees and students. This approach is not in line with CU's mission to provide affordable public higher education to the residents of Colorado," wrote UCW-CWA 7799 in the report.

As a result of the report’s findings, UCW-CWA 7799 is calling on CU to shift its budget priorities + making the following demands:

  1. Make transparent budget decisions: Lack of transparency in recent cuts that were ostensibly due to COVID-19 impacts has resulted in inequitable furloughs and salary reductions. Worse, they have attempted to set students against faculty, equating tuition increases for one with the salaries of the other.

    Published financial data from a public educational institution should be transparent and comprehensive, rather than opaque with gaping holes. If we want a budget that values – and reflects the values of – CU’s students and workers, they must have real decision-making power in budget decisions.
     
  2. Provide a living wage for all employees: Salaries at CU are not equitably distributed. The highest paid 1% of employees at CU make more than the lowest paid 14.2% of workers combined. 8.5% of full-time workers at CU earn less than a living wage for a single adult living alone in the area where they work. More than 70% of full-time workers do not earn enough to provide a living wage for a family of four.

    As public employees working full-time, all these workers should be earning a living wage that allows them to successfully address their cost of living and comfortably provide for their families.
     
  3. Put forward a temporary System-wide pause on debt financed capital construction projects: Since 2001, CU has taken out at least $3.33 billion in bond debt principal. That amount does not include the interest that must be paid on those bonds or any bond issuance fees. It also does not include other forms of debt, such as commercial paper, capital leases, or notes payable. In FY20 alone, CU issued more than $500 million in new bond debt. While that new debt went to pay for new capital construction and refinance older debt, CU made approximately $250 million in budget cuts to salaries and educational resources. These cuts deeply impact the quality of education CU is able to provide to its students and CU’s ability to provide a living wage to its employees.

    While tuition and student fees increase and staff and faculty wages stagnate, CU prioritizes debt-funded campus construction projects. Part of the theory behind this is that new buildings and facilities will attract full-tuition-paying students, mostly from outside Colorado, who are looked at as CU’s most highly-valued customers.

This report looks at the University of Colorado system and its campuses: Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and the Anschutz Medical Campus. The analysis draws on information from the university's financial reports and supplemental materials, publicly available financial information from sources like EMMA and TOPS, university staff and faculty reporting, and the CU Board of Regents’ public meeting documents and agendas.

Other educational data was found in IPEDS and SHEEO reporting. Cost of living research was sourced from the MIT Living Wage Calculator, various local, state, and federal agencies, and foundations that track average utility rates and usage. Other public data sources were used as well and are linked within this report when referenced.

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Contact: Rachel Magnin, Rachel.Magnin@berlinrosen.com