Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia's appointment to head the Colorado Department of Higher Education looks like a win-win for everyone.
The state sheds some expense since Garcia will collect $146,000 for his two jobs, which amounts to the higher-ed salary alone. The state's college students welcome an advocate who's spent most of his last 10 years on campus: first as president of Pikes Peak Community College, and then as president of Colorado State University-Pueblo.
And Garcia gets all the homework an educator-type could ever want.
On April 28, Garcia laid out the vision espoused by John Hickenlooper's administration for improving statewide education. This included a third-grade reading initiative and moving forward with the Educator Effectiveness Bill — tying teachers' performance to test scores — which was passed last year to much outcry. He also rolled out goals for the higher-ed system, such as streamlining the process of transferring two-year college coursework to four-year schools, and for Senate Bill 52 (see "52 pickup," below), which would establish statewide performance standards for colleges and universities.
The Independent caught up with the busy lieutenant governor as he traveled to and from meetings a couple weeks ago, and he spent the better part of his drive between Colorado Springs and Denver discussing his view of our statewide higher-ed system.
Indy: Can you first give me an overview of the challenges facing higher education in light of the budget realities?
Joe Garcia: The reality is that three years ago, higher education had total general fund support of over $706 million. Next year, it's going to be $519 million. And at the same time enrollments have increased, in some institutions as much as 20 or 30 percent.
So it's not as though they're doing the same with less money, but they're having to do a lot more with less state money. And as a consequence of that, schools have had to raise tuition. And I think that that's a particularly harsh reality that we have to face, especially as we are trying to serve more low-income students who frankly need more — not just financial assistance, but more student-support services.
Indy: That is the crux of the challenge that we now face, isn't it? Making higher education more available across the economic spectrum. But with less and less money, won't the poor students start to get squeezed out?
JG: The poor and indigent do get squeezed, but they have eligibility for the federal Pell Grants, which are, at least at the lower-cost Colorado schools, more than enough to cover the cost of tuition. Of course, it's never even close to covering the full cost of room and board and books, and those sorts of incidentals.
But who also gets squeezed are the working-class and middle-class students who may not qualify for a Pell Grant, but also don't have the money to pay the substantial tuition and room and board fees. So they have to take out significant student loans, which means they leave school with a lot of debt into an economy that's not particularly welcoming right now.
Indy: What are some initiatives that you want to focus on as head of higher education?
JG: This might seem simple, but it will make a big difference in terms of the total amount that students have to pay to get an education: We want to shorten the time that it takes to get a degree.
One of the things that really impacts students is that so many of them enter college needing remedial coursework. So they're paying tuition and they're spending time, but they are not actually getting college credit. That's one of the reasons that you are seeing very few students graduating within four years anymore.
So what we are trying to do is work with the K-12 system, to address remediation needs earlier to make sure that when students do arrive at campus, they are moving immediately into college-level coursework. Again, that seems simple, but when you look at the cost of an education and then you add 20 percent to that, that's just dramatically increasing the total cost of your education.
When we do have a student arrive with remediation needs, we also want to figure out ways to deliver that more quickly and in a more personalized approach. ... This is more than 30 percent of Colorado high school graduates. At some schools, it is more than 50 percent. And they are typically at the community colleges.
I meet at least a couple times a week with the Colorado commissioner of education, who oversees K-12. For example, we are talking about taking the college placement exam that is administered at community colleges when students arrive and administering that in 10th grade, 11th grade. And let's address their remediation needs before they ever leave. ...
There are two things that will help save cost. One is dealing with those students who need remediation, and getting that remediation addressed before they graduate. But the other is allowing the high-performing students, while they're still in high school, to take college-level classes that the high school pays for. Then a lot more students are able to graduate with 10, 20, 30 college credits. So they're able to graduate within two or three years instead of four or five.
Indy: How did this disconnect between higher education and college requirements occur?
JG: This is something that you see across the nation. And it's because K-12 has existed independently from higher ed and vice versa, and higher ed has not always said to K-12 very clearly, "These are the expectations that we have for entering students."
What does it mean to be post-secondary-ready? And that has not been very clear. Recent statutory changes in Colorado have said that we need to define that, so that students, when they graduate, are not shocked when they show up at college with their diploma hot in their hand and find out that they test into 10th- or 11th-grade math class.
Now, too, what we see are a lot of people coming back to college whose jobs or whose whole industries have gone away, and so they are coming back to get retrained, and for many of them it has been 10 or 15 years since they were in a high school algebra class. So frankly, it's no surprise that they need remediation.
Indy: That offers a whole different set of challenges. How does a college address those students?
JG: When I was at Pikes Peak Community College, we started what we called the Women's Re-Entry Program because we noticed a lot of women who were in their late 20s and up, much older, were coming back. There were two things: addressing their academic needs, but also just helping them feel comfortable in an environment where they felt they didn't belong, often because they had kids, and because they were older than the 18-year-olds sitting next to them.
So we tried to create support groups, surround them with other similar students, and had them meet with professors who were also parents or had returned to school later in life, and just let them know what is possible. Many of these students are very bright, very capable, but they just lack the confidence when they are coming back to an academic setting. They often turn out to be very good students.
Part of what we do at the Department of Education is to be a coordinating body where we try to bring institutions together and talk about what is working and what is not, where there might be federal grant dollars to support certain kinds of efforts and how we can share best practices. We entered into performance contracts with every institution and said that these are the things that we expect you to work on, in terms of retention, for graduation rates, for service to minority communities.
Indy: Explain to me a bit more about these performance contracts. Are there consequences attached to performance?
JG: They were started five years ago, but there weren't any consequences attached to them. If you performed well, it didn't matter. If you performed poorly, frankly, it didn't much matter.
[Senate Bill 52] would allocate some of the state money based on performance under those contracts. So, Step One would be to work with institutions to create a statewide master plan, setting statewide goals. Then we would negotiate with each campus a performance contract stating what their particular contribution to meeting those statewide goals would be. And then we'd say, "OK, so if we are going to increase graduation rates by 5 percent or increase retention statewide by 10 percent, School X would have to produce this many degrees or increase their four-year graduation rate." And those are the things that would then allow the school to be funded based on their performance at the end of the performance contract period.
Indy: This is a popular idea, currently, basing funding on performance.
JG: It's popular with the legislators, it's popular with the policy-makers, it is not popular with the institutions. Right now, they're like, "Wait a minute. You expect us to perform better but you are giving us less money?" Or they are serving a particularly difficult student population — like, the community colleges are serving a lot of under-prepared, under-resourced students — and it is asking a lot to tell them that they have to improve their graduation rate and their retention rate.
Yet I think that every institution needs to participate if we want to reach a statewide goal. So the negotiation of individual performance contracts will certainly be difficult, but we will get it done.
When I was at CSU-Pueblo, we boosted our graduation rate. We boosted our retention rate. We boosted our enrollment of minority students. All things that were required under the contract, but at the end of it, it didn't matter. We didn't get any more or any less money. We did it because it was the right thing to do, but schools that didn't do that also got the same amount of money.
So it seems to me that it is reasonable to reward those high performers. And it isn't a dramatic difference in funding, but at least it's something to recognize either the effort or lack thereof.
Indy: Where else do you expect to meet challenges in your tenure?
JG: One that is facing the state is that when we look at our most rapidly growing demographic in the state, it is the Hispanic population. It's one that has not been well-served at either the K-12 level or the higher-ed level. So we have higher dropout rates in high school among the Hispanic population, and then a much lower college enrollment and graduation rate. Even when they enroll, they are much less likely to graduate.
This is a significant part of the population. If what we care about is a well-educated workforce, and a competitive workforce, we need to make sure that we do a better job getting students from the Hispanic population enrolled and through college.
If you look, for example, at Hispanic male enrollment in 2000 — if you looked just at college-aged Hispanic males, 18 to 25, only about 18 percent were actually enrolled in any college. And then 10 years later, that percentage had dropped to fewer than 10 percent. Now it is 8 percent.
We have, in Colorado, one of the highest degree-attainment gaps in the country. If you look at the percentage of the white population with either a two- or four-year degree, and then the percentage of the Hispanic population with a two- or four-year college degree, there is a roughly 36 percent gap. That puts us among the very top in the country. We were number one for a while, but I think California has surpassed us for that dubious honor.
If you were Wal-Mart, you wouldn't ignore half the potential customers out there and think that you could be successful. So why would we at a university or college want to ignore half the graduating students and not try to pursue them?
Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia is a strong proponent of state Sen. Rollie Heath's efforts to tie higher-ed funding to institutional performance. With Senate Bill 11-052, an amended version of which has passed its final reading on the Senate floor, the state comes a step closer.
Assuming it makes it into law, the bill will establish five "general goals for the statewide system of higher education" and direct the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to "further articulate and specify the goals for each institutional tier in the system and for each state institution of higher education."
Translation: Each institution, in tandem with the state, will agree to certain guidelines to help Colorado reach its higher-ed goals (tied in part to graduation and retention rates). Once these guidelines have been established, the institution will be held accountable and rewarded by the state through a modest pay-for-performance funding mechanism.
— Chet Hardin
Meeting in the middle
Walking into your first college classroom underprepared, as Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia points out, will force you into costly and time-consuming remedial coursework. It'd be much better to know for sure that what you've done in high school will have you ready for college.
Making that happen more often is one of Garcia's goals. And one of Diana Sirko's, as well. As Colorado's deputy commissioner of education, Sirko (pictured above) says she meets with the lieutenant governor's office regularly to work on streamlining the process for kids going from state high schools to state colleges.
"One of the things that we are working on in our conversations is making sure that the expectations are clear," she says. "Are our standards aligned with what they're expecting? In other words, so that there is a common agreement of what's the content in freshman English that kids need to be ready for, and making sure that all of our institutions across the state are interpreting that the same way. Both the schools and higher ed."
In June 2009, the Colorado State Board of Education and the state Commission on Higher Education adopted academic standards to help define what it means to be postsecondary-ready. At the base of these standards are competency in English, mathematics, science, social studies and the humanities, as well as a focus on the development of personal traits such as critical thinking, creativity, global awareness and work ethic. In 2010, the state adopted Common Core Standards as a further articulation of what is expected in mathematics and English. (For more, see cde.state.co.us.)
School districts, she says, have until December this year to meet those statewide standards.
One big requirement: If a student isn't successful in ninth and 10th grades, the school will need to work on remedial efforts with that student in 11th and 12th grades.
"Remember, our current standards are 16 years old," Sirko says. "So the expectations have changed a little."
— Chet Hardin