Some Colorado colleges enroll more first-generation students. Should they get more money?

A young man, wearing a grey hoodie, jeans, and a black mask, walks on college campus past the Auraria Library.
Luis Hernandez walks to class on the Metropolitan State University of Denver campus in this 2021 file photo. Schools like MSU Denver that serve more first-generation students could get a special designation. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Colorado colleges and universities would get a special designation if they enroll a high number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, under a bill proposed this year. 

The largely symbolic bill has fed a bigger debate about how Colorado funds its public colleges. It also spurred a conversation about what first-generation students need to be successful.

The first generation-serving label that House Bill 1114 would create would attach to schools that enroll those students at a higher rate than the state average. It would also require Colorado’s higher education department to track how well students do at those schools.

The bill would not require schools to create additional programs to help those students get to and through college. Nor would it offer colleges more money to provide such support.

Money and support make a difference for students, said Diane Schorr, director of advocacy and initiatives at the Center for First-generation Student Success. She questioned why the state wouldn’t ensure colleges with the new designation get either. 

“What I would have liked to have seen is what’s being required of the institution?” Schorr said.

Supporters of the bill — including Metropolitan State University and Colorado Mesa University — would like to prod the state to better fund schools that serve a large share of first-generation students. These schools often have lower graduation rates, something that works against them in Colorado’s funding formula. It also costs a lot of money to run the programs that help first-generation students.

Opponents of the bill, including Colorado State University, say that who enrolls the most first-generation students shouldn’t matter. Instead, they say that state funding should follow those students wherever they enroll. With limited state funding for higher education, more money for certain institutions can mean less for others. 

Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall said the proposed designation would signal that first-generation students have a place on campus and would strengthen those schools asking for more state funds to increase services.  

About 40% of students enrolled at Colorado’s public higher education schools were the first in their family to go to college. Nationally, those students are less likely to graduate and the path gets harder if they come from low-income families.

About 44% of Colorado Mesa’s 11,000 students are first generation, Marshall said. MSU Denver also has a high percentage, with almost 60% of its about 16,000 student body identifying as the first in their family to go to college. 

Last academic year the state shifted away from funding schools based primarily on enrollment. Now the formula awards some state monies for enrolling more students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and for graduating those students. 

The funding changes haven’t immediately boosted the budgets of MSU Denver and Colorado Mesa. The schools still receive the least funding per student and want even more weight placed on which students they enroll.

“We’re serving the most expensive students,” Marshall said. “Over time, I think we’ve got to figure out how to correct those historic inequities and fund our values.”

Colorado State University System Chancellor Tony Frank, who spoke to the legislature to oppose the bill, expressed concern that the state label would affect how money is doled out statewide. 

Frank said about 32,000 students who are the first in their family to go to college have the potential to attend schools not labeled first-generation serving.

“Funding should follow first-gen students wherever they are,” Frank said, “not simply to institutions with a designation.”

He said the state should discuss funding for first-generation students when it debates how colleges and universities are funded — a process that happens every five years.

The state provides a set amount of funding for colleges based on factors such as enrollment and retention of students and then provides additional money based on student demographics and outcomes.

For example, schools can get more money for enrolling more students of color and Colorado residents, and for raising graduation rates. Schools get a small amount for enrolling first-generation students, less than for other student groups the state wants to enroll at higher rates.

There’s precedent for a conversation about funding when it comes to designations. Campuses receiving the federal Hispanic Serving-Institution designation, or schools with 25% Hispanic student enrollment, come with the ability to apply for federal resources. 

There’s no federal designation in serving first-generation students, but some schools spend more on programs to help those students get to graduation.

Marshall said Colorado Mesa invites first-generation freshman to campus before other groups to help familiarize them with the school, provides many of them an annual $1,000 scholarship, and offers counseling on academics, personal well-being, financial aid, and careers. 

Other schools also assist first-generation students. Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Denver are among 277 other institutions nationwide that work with the Center for First-generation Student Success to better the college experience on campus. The schools also provide counseling, financial, and academic programs for students.

Justin Hunter, 23, a first-generation student at Colorado Mesa University, said he felt supported by the school on the first day he stepped onto campus. The program that brought first-generation students on campus earlier than others helped him acclimate to campus life. School staff have also pushed him to become a campus leader. He is now student body vice president.

He said he supports the bill because he “stumbled” on Colorado Mesa during the application process. Other students should know that schools support them and the designation would help, he said.

Lawmakers were clear that their intention wasn’t to pit schools against each other when it comes to how much money schools receive to educate students. Instead, they wanted to also set off a greater conversation about how to support students. 

The bill is sponsored by state Reps. Rick Taggart, a Grand Junction Republican, and Serena Gonzales-Guitterez, a Denver Democrat. It would also require the state to list first-generation-serving schools on the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s website. The bill cleared the House Education Committee unanimously on Thursday, but lawmakers asked the bill sponsors to work with higher education institutions to get more buy-in.  

State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat, said she voted in favor of the bill because it signals to students that schools have prioritized serving them. Colleges and universities could use the label to tell students that they’re not alone.

Colorado has cut higher education funding to a point where families pay a much larger share than the state does for public college expenses. 

“As a legislator, to the extent that I can apologize, I am sorry that we have created such a devastating funding space that we have to have some of these conversations,” Bacon said.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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