Colorado lawmakers reup effort to recognize colleges serving large share of 1st-generation students

Three young adults stand outside a university building with a green tent in the background.
Colorado lawmakers have revived a proposal to give schools a designation for serving a large share of students who are the first in their family to attend college. (Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat)

Sign up for our free monthly newsletter Beyond High School to get the latest news about college and career paths for Colorado’s high school grads.

Colorado lawmakers are once again pushing to create a designation for colleges and universities that enroll a higher-than-average proportion of students who are the first in their family to go to college.

House Bill 1082 would allow schools to qualify for the designation if their share of these “first-generation students” matches or exceeds a statewide average of these students enrolled in Colorado institutions. About 36% of students enrolled at Colorado’s public higher education schools in 2021 were the first in their family to go to college.

The bill doesn’t say how schools should support these students, and institutions of higher education that receive the designation wouldn’t receive additional state funding. But students who testified in favor of the bill said such a designation would tell them that certain colleges are particularly well-suited to help them succeed, given the diverse challenges they often face.

A similar proposal in the Colorado General Assembly failed last year. The sponsors of this year’s bill said it takes into account concerns they heard about last year’s legislation. For example, this year’s bill doesn’t just rely on how many students schools enroll, but also whether they’re working with national organizations to support students who have no family background in attending college.

Rep. Rick Taggart, a Grand Junction Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, said the state must focus on students who have the hardest time getting to graduation. And as an adjunct professor at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, he’s seen how college can help students who are the first in their family to attend, especially for those from rural parts of the state.

“First-generation students have great potential and they just need our help and guidance and mentoring to grow and prosper,” he said.

The bill cleared the House Education Committee last week. School leaders who were against the bill last year have dropped their opposition.

Colleges and universities would also qualify if they have a First Scholars Network designation from the Center for First-generation Student Success, or a similar group.

The center works with colleges and universities nationwide to provide training, data, and expertise on how to support first-generation students through things like early move-in days, mentors, or specific workshops for students. The center’s network includes 349 institutions nationwide, including Colorado State University Fort Collins and the University of Colorado Denver.

Colorado Mesa University student Liban Shongolo, whose family moved to Colorado from Kenya, said the school has provided academic and financial support to him as a first-generation student. He told state lawmakers that students in his position want to use their education to give back to the state.

“We’re going to great places in life and we’re bettering our communities,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

But while a designation is a way for students to understand their options, what matters most is how schools support them, said Diane Schorr, Center for First-generation Student Success director of first-generation advocacy and initiatives.

Different groups of first-generation students have various challenges that can’t be solved under an umbrella designation. Some are relatively old, or have kids, or are from certain racial groups underrepresented on college campuses. Schools should understand what’s best to help those students, she said.

Schorr also said Colorado would be one of the first states to create a designation. But she also pointed out that among other things, supporting students means providing more money for them.

“While it’s great that they acknowledge the work, there doesn’t seem to be additional funding to support the work,” Schorr said.

Last year, university leaders at schools with relatively low concentrations of first-generation students worried that such a designation would shift state money away from their schools. Like last year, this year’s bill does not affect their funding.

The state does provide funding for schools based on their total student enrollment, as well as their demographics, such as how many students of color or students from low-income backgrounds are enrolled and graduate. Yet that funding calculation hasn’t greatly shifted how much money individual schools get.

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.

The Latest

The ‘Youth Civic Hub,’ an online portal launched on Friday aims to increase youth civic engagement and electoral participation.

The board on Tuesday signaled to lawmakers that they want new laws to reform the state’s charter school system.

El distrito y la high school enfrentan una nueva audiencia con la Junta de Educación Estatal en mayo.

Un grupo influyente conservador ha elaborado una estrategia para desafiar una decisión histórica del Tribunal Supremo que protege el derecho de los niños indocumentados a asistir a la escuela pública.

With federal pandemic aid for schools expiring, the schools say the additional operating funding would be crucial for students and staff.

“I work in school nutrition to feed kids, not trash cans,” a dietitian testified at a legislative hearing last week.