The changing face of higher education

Two historic pieces of federal legislation, the original G.I. Bill and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, transformed America by helping hundreds of thousands of Americans to earn postsecondary degrees, and dramatically expand the middle class. Now again, we are faced with demographic shifts will transform our country and our education system. Growth in the Hispanic/Latino population leads the way. While immigration reform and state DREAM Acts are important ways to make sure this new majority of Americans is fully integrated democratically and economically, in Colorado, we are focused on raising college attainment, not simply college enrollment.
 
By 2025, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, wants 66 percent of Coloradans aged 24-34 to hold high-quality postsecondary credentials. Our future workforce — and our commitment to equity — requires no less.
 
To meet our ambitious goal — which will mean over 230,000 additional credentials produced — we must eliminate the large and growing disparities in educational attainment across different groups of students, in particular those among low income students and students of color. While Colorado ranks high nationally in overall educational attainment, it also has among the largest degree attainment gaps in the country. That is, the college completion gap between white citizens and minority citizens — predominantly Hispanic/Latino Coloradans — is wider in our state than almost any other state. According to Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation report, fewer than one in five Hispanic Coloradans has a postsecondary credential.

In Colorado we are taking steps to address our attainment gap and we think other states should do the same. Our nation's ability to address continuing disparities for students of different races, ethnicities and family incomes will determine whether or not we remain competitive.

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We recognize that there is no silver bullet, no single solution to successfully address the multitude of challenges that threaten progress. Success requires a commitment to being mindful of and honest about our performance (and challenges) and intentionally developing public policies designed to address known inequities. An example of this is the Colorado Commission on Higher Education’s recent redesign of its state financial aid system, a reform that powerfully leverages public dollars to provide more funding to institutions that successfully serve low-income students.
 
Our policy is simple: Campuses receive larger financial aid allocations from the state when low income students make satisfactory academic progress. The new policy creates an incentive to keep low-income students on track and on time by granting to institutions more money per student as those students earn credits and advance from one level to the next. Next year, the Commission will also consider providing financial “disincentives” — meaning that campuses will receive less money if their low income students are taking too long to finish their degrees. In the short term, this reform focuses institutions’ attention closely on the most hard-to-serve students, while in the long term it should result in larger shares of state funds going to places where they make the biggest difference.
 
The most significant benefits of a college education, to the student and society, occur when a student actually earns a credential, whether it is a certificate or degree. Higher education usually rewards only enrollment — through tuition dollars — with no added incentives for progress, completion or success with high-risk populations. Through both policy and budgets, states should do more to make sure that the business incentives in higher education line up with the academic goals. Colorado’s new policy is just one example of how that can happen. Others too are going down similar paths of aligning financial policies with the student success agenda. Some states have directed all state appropriations to institutions away from enrollment and toward the outcomes (progress and success) that institutions achieve with the students they serve. Institutions have started to review their tuition policies to encourage students to enroll full-time, year-round to more quickly complete their degree.
 
Ultimately, these financial policies — tuition, student aid and institutional appropriations — are tools that can connect investments with priorities and support the institutional and system changes that are necessary for greater student success. 


Haynes and Regina Rodriguez are member of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

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