Challenges are not new to higher education. In fact, many of the most significant leaps forward in the nation’s higher education system have been in direct response to difficult circumstances.
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act to address the need for industrial growth. The act provided the stimulus for incredible advancements in human capital and technological innovations in new states and territories and triggered unprecedented proliferation in the number of institutions of higher learning, including our own Colorado State University, the state’s first public university.
Following World War II, the establishment of the GI Bill offered financial assistance as a benefit to returning veterans, opening access to higher education to hundreds of thousands of Americans. Within a generation of the end of World War II, the most rapid expansion of Colorado’s public postsecondary sector resulted in a doubling of the percent of adults with a college degree and the founding of many of our community colleges as well as Metropolitan State University of Denver and the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
In addition, the Higher Education Act of 1965—a bill forged from the struggles for equality and justice that took place during the Civil Rights Era—opened the door to higher education to millions of citizens previously unable to gain access to many public and private institutions of higher education. The act challenged all states to view education not as a private good for the privileged few, but a public good for the needs of all. It created many of the nation’s foremost financial aid programs, including what is now the Pell Grant program. By 1970, in part because of the opportunities the act provided, the average educational attainment of African-American youth age 20-24 had increased by more than 25 percent as compared to that of older (age 25 and above) African-Americans.
These expansions of the higher education system were the result of intentional, visionary public policies and direct public investments. In each case, there was clear recognition that public investments would yield powerful dividends—and the results show they did.
Today, Colorado faces another historic opportunity to respond to the changes in our society. But whereas past changes to the public higher system, as described above, were almost exclusively focused on growth, today we must confront a far more complex challenge—one that is rooted in changing demographics, the implications of the knowledge economy and the changing expectations of employers. The rapid pace of automation in nearly every sector is making many jobs obsolete, redefining others and creating whole new industries. These changes are driving the need for more educated workers who can adapt, learning new skills to remain relevant in the evolving job market. In this environment, the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree is no longer the only measure of postsecondary success. Students and employers are calling for new delivery models that will result in quality credentials earned faster and at less cost. We must serve a different kind of student with different needs.
At the same time, we must convince an increasingly skeptical audience of families, employers and legislators that a greater investment in higher education will yield larger returns and strengthen our economy.
While Colorado has begun to recover from the Great Recession and state funding for higher education has increased $150 million from 2012 to today, funding still remains lower than it was before the recession. Complex and often contradictory statutory and constitutional requirements—e.g., the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, Amendment 23 and Gallagher Amendment—have hampered the state’s ability to invest fully in its priorities. In fact, Colorado has remained in the bottom five states for the past five years in public support for higher education. Compounded by inflation and rising costs, the impact on families is significant.
Our public institutions have proven their resilience and resourcefulness in maintaining quality, preserving access and cutting costs over the past decade in the face of declining state investment. Nevertheless, important challenges lie ahead for both our institutions and our citizenry. Failing to meet them will result in even higher costs to our economy and our way of life, threatening to undermine the American foundational tenet that an educated citizenry raises all ships.