New Master Plan to Guide Colorado Colleges

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When it comes to students who enter college and actually graduate – Colorado doesn’t do too well. In fact, it lies in the middle of the pack nationally. Thursday, higher education officials announced a plan they say will move Colorado to the front.

Here is a transcript of CPR education reporter Jenny Brundin's report.

Reporter Jenny Brundin: For decades, Colorado’s colleges and universities have gotten state money based on one simple measure: how many bodies are filling seats. That is, they’re funded based on the number of students enrolled. That’s about to change, says Lt. Governor Joe Garcia.

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia: We are trying to fund institutions of higher education based on something other than enrollment. We want to incentivize success not just enrollment.

Reporter: What that means is colleges could get less in state funding if they don’t meet certain goals laid out in individual contracts and a new master plan. The body that oversees higher ed – the Colorado Commission on Higher Education - approved that plan yesterday. It’s a set of goals that college leaders and state officials spent years hammering out. Goals like meeting the needs of employers. Lt. Governor Garcia :

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia: We know that by 2025, the expectation is that about 2/3rds of the jobs that will exist in Colorado will require some kind of post-secondary credential. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to have a Bachelor’s degree or a Master’s degree, but they do need to have either a Bachelor’s degree, or an Associate’s degree or another certificate that has some value in the marketplace, the kind of credentials the community colleges offer.

Reporter: Right now, only 19 out of every 100 students that start college in Colorado wind up graduating so there is a ways to go to hit that two-thirds number. So statewide goal, then, is to add a 1,000 graduates each year. Also, Colorado should have graduates who look more like the population - now Hispanics fall way behind whites here, one of the biggest gaps in the country. So each institution hammered out a contract that will measure how well they’re doing at meeting these goals. Metro State University of Denver president Stephen Jordan says the contracts are a good thing; he says it should help stabilize the funding system for colleges, another goal of the master plan.

Stephen Jordan: Many of us believe in order to get taxpayer support, for that kind of a funding system, we’re going to have to demonstrate performance.

Reporter: Each institution got to choose its own goals within the bigger goals spelled out in the master plan. For instance, Metro wants to build on its recent success at getting a lot more students of color enrolled in science and engineering programs. So it is signing a contract committing to it.

Jordan: By having them be very public like this, you hold yourself accountable to a larger public for achieving those goals that are clearly very important to Colorado. I mean look at the extent to which our economy is based on clusters that have an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.

Reporter: Meeting these goals may mean big changes on campuses. Barbara Jean Morris is provost at Fort Lewis College in Durango..

Barbara Jean Morris: Making it easy for them to cut that path to graduation, so the times the classes are offered, the frequency they’re offered.

Reporter: She like other college leaders does worry about meeting some targets, especially when it will be tied to funding. Kathleen Bollard of the University of Colorado system says the first year, they need to increase the number of graduates by 1 percent, 100 students. Doesn’t seem like a lot. But by the fifth year of the contract, that will be 500 a year.

Kathleen Bollard: We’re most concerned with quality and the excellence of the education we provide, and we certainly won’t do anything to compromise that, so we’re a little concerned about increasing the number of credentials by that much but we’re going to certainly work hard to do that.

Reporter: Metro’s Stephen Jordan worries about keeping students enrolled. It’s a bigger challenge for a college like Metro, with lots of part-time, commuter students, many of whom are the first in their family to go to college or who have been out of high school awhile. Similar institutions around the country have millions more in state support and fewer students than Metro has.

Jordan: We don’t have the ability to provide the support services that every one of our peer institutions have.

Reporter: That said, college leaders say they are up for the challenge. And they’re pleased at how they were able to work with the state to develop the performance contracts to give them lots of freedom and flexibility. Though they’ll start in on their goals right away, the state has agreed not to link money to the goals just yet. That will kick in only after the state restores funding to higher education to its high-water mark of $706 million dollars - that’s 27 percent more than colleges are getting now.