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How can Colorado higher education fix its image?

University of Colorado president identifies statewide trends and gaps in postsecondary education

Colorado’s “college paradox” is alive and thriving in the state’s higher education system.

Colorado has a highly educated population, but the smarties are moving in from out of state and homegrown students aren’t seeing the value of a four-year college degree.

The University of Colorado is consulting with school districts, businesses and local governments across the state to pin down what’s affecting young people’s perception of higher education.

The college has identified trends that are occurring not only on its campuses but statewide, CU President Todd Saliman said. For example, 40% of Colorado students are not pursuing postsecondary degrees, with men trailing behind women in enrollment and graduation rates.

Student retention rates are another factor that Saliman said is in decline statewide. Fort Lewis College has grappled with retention issues for more than a decade, and some of those students who didn’t return to FLC for their sophomore or junior years ended up at CU.

In fall 2020, 426 students from Southwest Colorado enrolled at CU, said Michael Sandler, a spokesman for CU, in an email to The Durango Herald. There have been 98 transfers from FLC to CU over the last five years. On average, Sandler said, those transfer students make their move with 60 to 90 credit hours on their transcripts.

Sandler broke down how many Southwest Colorado students enrolled at CU in fall 2020:

  • Archuleta County: 21 students.
  • Delta County: 51 students.
  • Dolores County: 0 students.
  • Gunnison County: 54 students.
  • La Plata County: 130 students.
  • Montezuma County: 14 students.
  • Montrose County: 73 students.
  • Ouray County: 10.
  • San Juan County: 0 students.
  • San Miguel County: 73 students.

Saliman said higher education has an image problem.

“There are more and more people that are questioning the value of a four-year degree,” he said. “... That’s part of what we’ve been trying to work on, is to try to figure out why people are thinking this, and how do we communicate to them in a way that helps them appreciate the value of a four-year degree.”

A lot of it is simply math, Saliman said.

People with four-year degrees will earn more income, are more likely to be employed and are less likely to be routinely unemployed, he said.

“It makes your life better,” he said. “We have a communication problem.”

Saliman said half of CU’s students have no debt, and of students who do have debt, the average debt amounts to $27,000. He said, though, that discussions about college affordability can come off as patronizing. The University of Colorado offers an online calculator on its website where students can calculate their projected expenses themselves.

New state legislation took effect for the 2021-22 school year and onward that allows Indigenous students from any federally recognized American Indian tribe to attend public colleges in Colorado at in-state tuition rates. The University of Colorado board of regents led the effort to get that law passed, Saliman said.

He said the average tuition across all of CU’s campuses for students who qualify for aid and come from families with incomes of $100,000 or less is about $2,200 per year.

“There’s this national story that has built up about $200,000 of debt and the $100,000 tuition bills,” Saliman said. “When you go to a public institution and you’re a resident student, that’s just not the case. It just isn’t. It’s just wrong.”

The various gaps in education

Women are enrolling and completing four-year degrees at a higher rate than men across the country, and girls are generally testing better than boys at the high school level, Saliman said.

At FLC this fall, 512 undergraduate women enrolled full time, while 399 men enrolled full time. Nearly 1,000 more women applied to FLC than men.

Men are still predominant in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, but Saliman said he doesn’t know why women are taking such a lead in higher education.

The gender gap isn’t the only trend Saliman is noticing. He said there’s an urban-rural gap and even a partisan gap – more liberals are attending colleges than conservatives, he said.

Another trend CU identified is that low-income people and people of color are displaying lower enrollment and graduation rates, even when compared with the generally low rates across Colorado colleges, Saliman said.

FLC is notable in that it hosts the largest Indigenous student body of any Colorado college. FLC allows Native Americans to attend the college tuition-free. Forty-two percent of students are Native American or Alaskan Native, and 57% of the student body consists of people of color, but no Black freshman students enrolled this fall and there were only 31 Black undergraduate students enrolled at FLC as of October.

In the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s annual report about postsecondary access and success, higher education was described as a “leading driver on the road to equity.”

Diversification and achieving equity isn’t something that happens overnight, Saliman said.

Saliman said CU is approaching equity in several ways: There was its successful legislative push to allow Native Americans from out of state to attend public Colorado colleges at in-state tuition rates; the university is working to make its faculty and staff members more ethnically diverse across its campuses; students and faculty are surveyed so the CU administration can understand the culture the college presents and whether people feel like they belong on campus.

SAT/ACT test score submissions are optional for students applying to CU. Saliman said the college is looking into applicants’ backgrounds and experiences outside the classroom – “beyond the numbers,” he said – to get a better understand of their prospective students as people.

The university was the first in the country to adopt a nondiscrimination policy about political views and philosophies, said Sue Sharkey, a member of the board of regents.

“When we talk about wanting to be a welcoming place and wanting people to feel like they belong ... we want people who have different political views to feel welcome, too,” Saliman said.


An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect debt amount for attending the University of Colorado for four years. The average debt is $27,000.

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