Colorado wants more high school graduates to go on to get degrees or certificates. A new plan calls on colleges to embrace untraditional ideas

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A tour group makes a stop inside the Student Memorial Union at the University of Colorado Boulder campus, Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

Get more Coloradans enrolled in post-secondary programs that will lead to good jobs.

That’s the challenge in a nutshell for the state’s employers, higher education institutions and K-12 system. 

Colorado’s Commission on Higher Education issued the challenge in a five-year strategic plan released Thursday to guarantee that all education and training leads to a positive return on investment.

"At a minimum — if learners can’t recover the true cost of attendance over the course of their lifetime we are clearly not doing right by Colorado students,” said Sarah Hughes, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. “This report marks a shift in culture and a step forward in how we measure student outcomes."

Some key facts highlight the challenge

Ninety percent of Colorado jobs that are sufficient to support a family of three require some form of post-secondary education. 

But more than half of Colorado high school graduates won’t earn a degree or credential from a traditional post-secondary institution. Resident undergraduate enrollment in colleges has declined by 19 percent since 2010-11. And for Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other learners of color — up to 80 percent will not earn a degree or credential after high school.

The plan wants institutions to prioritize pathways that lower student costs, invest in proven learner support programs and increase collaboration with employers. It doesn’t direct institutions to do any specific actions, but it urges them to improve pathways with a negative return on investment. Those are ones that don’t allow for lifetime earnings to increase by more than the full cost of their education, the report said. Some are already on this path, but others aren’t.

The commission calls on colleges and universities to embrace concepts that have not always been embraced.

That means reducing student costs by offering credit for previous education, college credit earned in high school, credit for industry credentials, and stackable credentials. For example, in 2020, Pikes Peak Community college awarded more than 10,500 credits for prior learning for people who have served in the military in management and computer programs. Arapahoe Community College offers free open-source academic materials saving students $2 million in textbook costs since 2019.

The commission asks institutions to co-create academic pathways with employers to develop more skills-based education and to invest in better data collection, more career advising, more support for first-generation learners, and more transparency with students about where their path will lead. Another goal is that every academic track should include internships, apprenticeships and other experiential learning.

Other ideas include flexible academic programs that allow learners to work at the same time, and boosting “earn and learn” models such as apprenticeships. For example, MSU Denver partners with SpringHill Suites by Marriott to learn hospitality skills, while Regis University learners in the health fields provide low- to no-cost services to low-income communities across the state.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education will spend the year developing new measures of postsecondary and workforce success based on these strategic principles.

Here’s the conundrum

While 80 percent of Colorado’s students of color don’t go on to post-secondary education, another report released this week shows 60 percent of Coloradans have some form of college credential, the fourth-highest rate in the nation.

State officials say that’s because historically Colorado has relied on a strategy of attracting people here who already have degrees. That won’t work anymore.

The A Stronger Nation report comes from the Lumina Foundation using new federal data. It measures how many adults hold college degrees, certificates, industry certifications, or other credentials. The report compared post-secondary education rates of residents 25 and older in 2019 with 2021.

Here are a few more of the report’s Colorado findings:

  • Colorado’s attainment dipped slightly from two years ago, when it was 61 percent to 60.5 percent.
  • About 45 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, while another 8 percent have an associate’s degree, 7 percent have a certificate or certification and 12 percent have some college and no degree.
  • Degrees beyond high school vary greatly by county. Rural counties Bent and Crowley in the Eastern Plains have about 19 percent of their population with a postsecondary credential, while Broomfield has a 70 percent rate and Boulder topped the list at 71 percent. (The county data is just for degrees so it’s possible there are more people in rural areas with certifications or certificates.)
  • All racial and ethnic groups except Asians or Pacific Islanders grew in their credential attainment since 2019. However, there are still persistent gaps between those groups: Asian or Pacific Islander (63 percent), white (61 percent), Black (40 percent), American Indian or Alaska Native (36 percent), and Hispanic (28 percent).

Colorado’s goal is to get 66 percent of residents with a degree or credential by 2025

To reach that goal, the state will have to significantly increase the number of people who enroll in programs and earn all types of credentials beyond high school.

Colorado lost some ground during the pandemic. That could be because many of the skills people were seeking came through credential and certificate programs are hands-on programs.

“They weren’t able to access it because they needed to be in-person to get these skills, if it’s a nursing certificate, you can’t do that on a computer, you need to be in-person,” said Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning for the Lumina Foundation.

She said Colorado has a sustained focus on making post-secondary education more accessible Black and Latino residents, “it takes a minute for it to go into policy, then to practice and then actually be impacting these individuals.” Since the report examines those 25 and older, it’s also possible that increases in attainment for that population won’t show up yet in the data, she said.

She said another important segment to focus on is the “some college, no degree” segment of the population. Nationwide, that’s 39 million people. In Colorado, it’s 12 percent of the older-than-25 population. Colorado has a number of efforts in play to get those individuals back into post-secondary education.

“It would benefit the local economy. It would benefit society and it absolutely would benefit those individuals,” Brown said.