In new strategic plan, Colorado wants residents to find the value in higher education

College students sit at round tables in a large room with windows.

Colorado’s higher education system ideally not only would ensure students get jobs, but also would pave the way for them to earn back what they spent on their education and increase their lifetime earnings, according to a new strategic plan released Thursday.

The plan prods Colorado to focus on the value higher education can bring to individuals and the state — rather than only on whether Coloradans are earning a degree.

That might mean the state subsidizes a student’s education to become a teacher or nurse, which have lower pay but high societal value, said Josh Scott, Colorado Commission on Higher Education vice chair. Or it would mean showcasing how a college program can benefit them.

“We need that education to be valuable, and in particular, we need it to be valuable in the way that matters for students,” Scott said. The commission sets the direction of higher education in the state.

The latest document updates the state’s 2017 strategic plan, which sought to get 66% of residents a postsecondary education by 2025.

The state updates its strategy about every five years and likely won’t reach that 2017 goal. The pandemic stopped some students from going to college because they needed to work or because programs were shut down. Coloradans also began to reconsider the value of attending college, especially as wages in entry-level jobs grew. And many worried about taking on debt for higher education. 

A report released this week shows the state backslid from its goal by half a percentage point, dropping to 60.5% of its population with a degree, certificate or credential.

Scott said the goal set Colorado on the right path to educating more students, but it didn’t do enough to communicate why students should go to college rather than go straight to work. The previous plan also masked disparities in college-going because Colorado has an influx of educated people from other states and remains one of the most highly educated in the country, he said.

In Colorado, only 34% of Colorado high school graduates end up earning a college credential or above. The rest either never go to college or don’t graduate when they get to college. Many of those students come from communities of color or low-income families.

Meanwhile, over 90% of in-demand jobs require a college education.

The strategic plan, called “Building Skills for an Evolving Economy,” lists three ways to connect residents with a higher education.

The plan calls for the state to improve the small number of programs that lead to a negative return on investment for students. The plan says the state must ensure that a college education at least must enable graduates to earn more than what they spend on getting a degree.

That means colleges and universities should work with employers to offer courses leading to well-paying jobs. The state should also find ways to lower the cost of attendance

One such example of how to get there would include Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal to provide free training for in-demand jobs, such as teaching, health care, and advanced manufacturing. Some of those jobs require costly training and certification.

Second, the state should ensure students from lower economic backgrounds and those from communities of color get the support they need to get into programs that reap high economic benefits. 

The plan says the state should present those students with information that helps make decisions and then support them to graduation. 

An example includes one at the University of Northern Colorado, which tutors, coaches, and supports students who are the first in their family to go to college. The program has helped the university record last year its highest-ever student retention rates.

Finally, colleges and universities should collaborate more closely with employers to increase professional opportunities and networks for students. 

The plan says the reason people go to college is to improve economic mobility, and education should teach the skills students need to open up job opportunities after college. For example, Front Range Community College offers classes that partner with employers to offer apprenticeships and hands-on experience in areas such as health care, manufacturing, and tree care.

Scott said he hopes the strategic plan ultimately will help Coloradans see why college is important to them and reframes the way state leaders think about college.

“We’ve treated a certificate or a degree as the finish line,” Scott said. “We need to recognize that for a learner, it’s not the finish line. In fact, it’s the starting line in many cases. This is a ticket that you’ve earned that lets you run the race, not the T-shirt that you get at the end of the race.”

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

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