Strategic Goal 3

Improve Student Success

In spite of its recognition as one of the most highly educated states, Colorado ranks at or below average in student persistence and completion.

Colorado should rightfully be proud of the many accomplishments of its postsecondary system. Nonetheless, in spite of its recognition as one of the most highly educated states, Colorado ranks at or below average in student persistence and completion. Not enough of our students are completing in a timely manner, or at all, after enrolling.

Currently in Colorado, only about half of students who enroll in a public postsecondary institution complete within 150 percent time (within three years for a two-year degree or within six years for a four-year degree). Indeed, the pipeline of public education in Colorado has leaks throughout: Only about one-quarter of Colorado 9th graders graduate high school in four years, then immediately enroll in a postsecondary certificate or degree program in the fall and complete a postsecondary credential in 150 percent time.1

There are many indicators of future success for students along their education pipeline, beginning as early as third grade reading proficiency. In middle and high school, attendance, grades and exposure to college-level work are consistently viewed as indicators of future success. Once a student enters postsecondary education, indicators of likely on-time completion include completing credit-bearing gateway courses in English and math within the student’s first 30 credit hours and taking 15 credits per semester. We also know that for many college students, “other life factors” increasingly get in the way and can reduce a student’s likelihood of completing.

Already noted is the priority that the commission has placed in recent years on working with the state’s K-12 system and putting into place policies to ensure that K-12 guidelines and requirements align with postsecondary expectations. While work remains to be done, we believe our efforts in such areas as alignment of the CCHE’s admissions and developmental education policies with the State Board of Education’s graduation guidelines, concurrent enrollment, coordination with educatorpreparation programs and informing  guaranteed transfer will help ensure the success of our students.

In many ways, time is the enemy to postsecondary student success: The longer a student takes to acquire the required credit hours, the less likely it is that he or she will complete. Conversely, evidence is strong that students who complete at least 15 credit hours per semester—dubbed the “15-to-finish” strategy and what researchers describe as high academic intensity—are far more likely to persist, successfully transfer and complete a college degree. For many students who must work or have other family obligations, increasing credit hours would be possible only with increased financial aid. This is a trade-off that will pay off for Colorado in the long run.

Evidence also suggests that students who graduate from high school with some college credit are more likely to enroll and succeed in postsecondary education. Dual enrollment enables high school students to concurrently enroll in college courses tuition-free, thus shortening their time-to-degree, decreasing costs and increasing their chances for success. Colorado implemented a framework for dual enrollment in 2009 that has resulted in sustained annual increases, with more than 30 percent of Colorado 11th and 12th graders having participated in some kind of dual enrollment program by academic year 2015-2016.

Colorado has been a leader in other innovative approaches that shorten the time required and lower the cost for students to earn a credential. Colorado Early Colleges allow students to earn an associate degree at no cost while still in high school. And through Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH), under which the departments of Education and Higher Education support partnerships among school districts, postsecondary institutions and industry, students can similarly earn a high school diploma and associate degree while also gaining work experience in six years (four years of high school and two equivalent years of college).

Many students are not prepared for college-level work when they arrive; thus, they require remedial courses (also known as developmental education) before they can begin their college-level classes. Remediation increases a student’s time-to-degree and lowers a student’s chances of success. A U.S. Department of Education study found that 58 percent of students who do not require remediation earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 17 percent of students enrolled in remedial reading and 27 percent of students enrolled in remedial math.2 Remediation remains a challenge for Colorado, both in the number of students who are unprepared for college-level work and in institutions’ over-placement of students who could have passed the college-level courses into remediation. In 2016, 36 percent of high school graduates entering a Colorado institution of higher education were identified as needing remedial courses. Over the last five years, Colorado has made strides to improve its remedial education approach, adding supplemental academic instruction (SAI), or co-requisite remediation. This strategy allows students with only limited remedial needs to enter credit-bearing courses while getting the support they need. SAI is gaining traction: Today, more than 1,575 students are enrolled in SAI programs statewide.

By getting more students successfully across the finish line, we increase their chances of a fulfilling career and the state’s economic vibrancy.

Finally, transferring among and between public institutions has become common, with national statistics suggesting that over one-third of students transfer at least once during their postsecondary education. However, transfer can result in lost credits, duplication of coursework and increased time-to-degree. Colorado has made smooth transfer for students a priority, and institutions have sought to support transfer students and ensure their successful and timely completion. Today, Colorado has 1,200 courses approved under its Guaranteed Transfer Pathways (gtPathways) that are part of every associate degree and most bachelor’s degrees; these courses are guaranteed to transfer and apply to the general education core curriculum at any public institution.

This strategic goal encompasses all of these approaches and others that the state and institutions employ to improve students’ timely completion. By getting more students successfully across the finish line, we increase their chances of a fulfilling career and the state’s economic vibrancy.

  1. These numbers reflect students who follow the “traditional” public system of education in Colorado; they do not take into account students who go into the military, an apprenticeship or other “nontraditional” education pathways.
  2. U.S. Department of Education.