Future of higher education in Colorado: Leaders discuss pandemic changes and challenges

Remote learning and tight budgets
Posted at 10:30 AM, Mar 11, 2021

Colorado’s colleges and universities believe they’re an integral part of our rebound from the pandemic, but their own future is somewhat uncertain, with budget cuts, and declining enrollment.

Denver7 spoke to higher education leaders about their predictions for the future.

“I think (the pandemic) does change what higher education looks like next year, next decade, and into the future,” said Matt Griswold, associate vice president for online learning at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Griswold said more classes and services may available online, as remote learning becomes a permanent fixture of education.

“We had about 30% of our credit hours coming from online instruction before the pandemic, and we think what students demand is a balance between those two,” Griswold said. He added that virtual office hours have given students more access to their professors.

MSU Denver President Janine Davidson said she’s looking forward to bringing students back to campus for the 2021-2022 academic year.

“I get letters from students every week saying, 'Please, can we come back to campus?'” said Davidson.

It was the on-campus experience that many college students missed most this year, and many institutions are examining what they can provide beyond just academics.

The University of Denver is in the first year of a new program called the 4-Dimensional Experience. Students in the program attend additional workshops and programs in areas that focus on intellectual growth, character development, personal well-being, and career preparation.

Freshman Vy Nghe described how the program has changed her perception of what college life can be.

“I basically think of it as college is not the end goal. It’s a stepping stone to the rest of the person's life, and therefore what we should be focusing on is how are you doing as a person, not just how are you doing as a student,” Nghe said.

One hundred and forty students were in the 4-Dimensional Experience for the first year, but the goal is to eventually have every student participating in aspects of the program. DU Chancellor Jeremy Haefner said the pandemic illustrated the need for programs that support students’ well-being.

“Our students really had a difficult time throwing themselves into the college experience at a time when there were so many restrictions and protocols. It created an added layer of stress,” Haefner said.

At colleges that serve a large percentage of lower-income students, addressing needs may include connecting them with resources for food, technology, child care and other government services.

“I think (the pandemic) has really laid bare a lot of inequities across our system, whether it’s healthcare, or anything else, and if we’re going to get to a new normal and recover from COVID, the role that higher ed plays in lifting people into a better world is so huge” said MSU’s Davidson.

But if colleges are the place that can lift people into better lives, their own viability is even more critical. Colorado’s Higher Education Department Executive Director Angie Paccione said she’s hopeful state lawmakers will restore funding. The state cut 58% from the higher education budget last year.

The state also approved a new funding formula for higher education that will take effect this fall. It allocates more money to schools that educate students of color, low-income, and first-generation students.

College affordability also remains a critical issue. Paccione hopes the Biden administration will push for free access to community college. Back at MSU Denver, Matt Griswold hopes expanding remote learning could eventually lead to a more affordable degree.

“Even if tuition stays the same, I think there’s some efficiency in the progression through a degree. Students will be able to take more classes and get degrees done more quickly than they have in the past,” Griswold said.

Paccione said the mission of the higher education department is for every student in Colorado to receive a post-secondary credential.

“There are too many people who have some college and no degree, which means they have some debt and no way to maximize their earning potential,” she said.