Colorado’s viewpoints about the value of college

I recently read Jason Gonzales’ article in WorkShift about Colorado’s new strategic plan for higher education.  I was so intrigued by his sentence “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 I opted to read the plan in its entirety.

The title of Colorado’s strategic plan for higher education is Building Skills for an Evolving Economy. My first thought was “this plan focusing on skills was not written by traditional academics.” The cover page states the plan’s strategic goal: “Increase the number of Coloradans benefiting from valuable career skills, obtained while in high school or via postsecondary education that – at a minimum – enable additional lifetime earnings greater than the cost of attendance.”

Governor Jared Polis’ introduction notes that “91.4 percent of Colorado jobs sufficient to support a family of three require some form of post-secondary education and resident undergraduate enrollment in [Colorado’s] public institutions of higher education have declined by 19% since 2010-2011.” To provide Coloradans with access to career opportunities and mobility, Governor Polis writes that the plan calls on the “postsecondary ecosystem to focus on the outcomes of education which matter most to learners and to measure our effectiveness in ensuring that Colorado learners get the value they rightfully expect out of the investment they make in their education.” His concluding paragraph commends the Commission on Higher Education for “this innovative report.”

The Commission’s introduction provides an excellent graphic of the evolution of postsecondary success measures. I liked it so much; I included it below.

evolution of post-secondary success measures

Having spent two decades in a leadership role in higher education, I remember the emphasis in each of these brackets. I can also state that change comes so slowly in higher ed, that some institutions are still focused on access/enrollment from the 1970’s to early 2000’s, some are still focused on completion/attainment from the 2010-2020 decade, and very few are focused on the dual outcomes of attainment/value which this plan focuses on. The report’s intro notes that “it is insufficient to simply increase the volume of credentials achieved without ensuring that meaningful value is created to learners.” Value “is measured by considering the benefits a learner enjoys as a result of their postsecondary education minus the costs the learner incurs (in both time and money) in pursuit of their education.” Value can be improved by “enhancing benefits, increasing affordability, or decreasing the amount of time needed to complete postsecondary education.” “No one – whether from an affluent background or not – should be expected to invest money in a program that doesn’t bring economic gain and therefore may leave the learner with a persistent debt obligation.”

The Commission notes that the obligation to provide lifelong benefits to learners is not the obligation of public higher education institutions alone. They write that the plan is a call to action for all stakeholders – the K-12 system, public and private colleges and universities, and employers. Part of the call to action includes breaking down silos that have divided these organizations as well as embracing alignment and partnerships.

The Strategic Goal includes three key elements. The first element, Increase, is to serve more learners with relevance and value. They note that the percentage of Colorado learners who will not earn a postsecondary credential is 53 percent.

value of college: percentage of Colorado learnings earning a credential

The second element, Valuable, is to ensure that Colorado learners gain valuable career skills. The Commission utilized a value of post-secondary outcomes framework created by the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities that is depicted below.
value of college: post collegiate outcomes framework
The plan includes three strategic pillars.

The first strategic pillar is to “identify and improve pathways with a negative return on investment.” There are two levers to increase the economic viability of their programs. Lever One is to increase collaboration between workforce and educational institutions to increase earnings from programs. Lever Two is to reduce the cost of attendance or the time of attendance to increase the value of the degree if earnings increases are not easily achieved.

The second strategic pillar is to “enable more learners to succeed in programs and pathways that offer a positive return on investment.” Again, there are two levers. Lever One is to access better data. Better data will enable transparency for learners. Lever Two is to invest in proven approaches. Expanded state funding for both levers is encouraged.

The third strategic pillar is to “catalyze increased postsecondary workforce collaboration, alignment, and co-creation of new pathways that offer a positive return on investment.” The single lever is to increase alignment and collaboration with employers. The Commission encourages policymakers to provide financial incentives to institutions to make changes to programs that may not be realized immediately.

Appendix A of the plan provides a more detailed definition of the minimum economic viability threshold. Its clarity leaves little flexibility for a liberal interpretation of expected economic returns. It also states that institutions will not be compared based on their numeric return. Either a degree is “green” because its ROI > 0, or it’s “yellow” because its ROI < 0.

I enjoyed reading Colorado’s strategic plan for higher education. It’s refreshing to see how its Commission is so forward thinking compared to other state governments and our Congress and Department of Education. Achieving the plan will not be easy, but if everyone is aligned and incentivized to achieve it, I believe Colorado will build an educational and economic model for other states to follow.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence