There’s no federal designation in serving first-generation students, but some schools spend more on programs to help those students get to graduation

Some CO colleges enroll more first-generation students. Should they get more money?

There’s no federal designation in serving first-generation students, but some schools spend more on programs to help those students get to graduation

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Colorado colleges and universities would get a special designation if they enroll a high number of students who are the first in their families to go to college, under a bill proposed this year. 

The largely symbolic bill has fed a bigger debate about how Colorado funds its public colleges. It also spurred a conversation about what first-generation students need to be successful.

The first generation-serving label that House Bill 1114 would create would attach to schools that enroll those students at a higher rate than the state average. It would also require Colorado’s higher education department to track how well students do at those schools.

The bill would not require schools to create additional programs to help those students get to and through college. Nor would it offer colleges more money to provide such support.

Money and support make a difference for students, said Diane Schorr, director of advocacy and initiatives at the Center for First-generation Student Success. She questioned why the state wouldn’t ensure colleges with the new designation get either. 

“What I would have liked to have seen is what’s being required of the institution?” Schorr said.

Supporters of the bill — including Metropolitan State University and Colorado Mesa University — would like to prod the state to better fund schools that serve a large share of first-generation students. These schools often have lower graduation rates, something that works against them in Colorado’s funding formula. It also costs a lot of money to run the programs that help first-generation students.

Opponents of the bill, including Colorado State University, say that who enrolls the most first-generation students shouldn’t matter, Instead, they say that state funding should follow those students wherever they enroll. With limited state funding for higher education, more money for certain institutions can mean less for others. 

Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall said the proposed designation would signal that first-generation students have a place on campus and would strengthen those schools asking for more state funds to increase services.  

About 40% of students enrolled at Colorado’s public higher education schools were the first in their family to go to college. Nationally, those students are less likely to graduate and the path gets harder if they come from low-income families.

About 44% of Colorado Mesa’s 11,000 students are first generation, Marshall said. MSU Denver also has a high percentage, with almost 60% of its about 16,000 student body identifying as the first in their family to go to college. 

Last academic year the state shifted away from funding schools based primarily on enrollment. Now the formula awards some state monies for enrolling more students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and for graduating those students. 

The funding changes haven’t immediately boosted the budgets of MSU Denver and Colorado Mesa. The schools still receive the least funding per student and want even more weight placed on which students they enroll.

“We’re serving the most expensive students,” Marshall said. “Over time, I think we’ve got to figure out how to correct those historic inequities and fund our values.”

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Laura Ascione

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