Tony Frank: On college costs and COVID-19

The State of Colorado produces a college graduate at a lower cost to taxpayers than any other state, and our tuition costs for public colleges and universities are solidly in the middle of the national pack. The total amount of student loan debt in Colorado has been on the decline for several years, and recent state studies indicate that higher education remains a wise investment for our students.

This was and remains the reality in Colorado. But as we all know, today’s reality looks and feels a lot different from what it was at this same time last fall.

Now – as campuses around the country struggle with whether and how to reopen this fall – some students and families are questioning whether the cost of a college degree should change to reflect the changes in campus life and course delivery methods that COVID-19 has required.

The two physical campuses of the CSU System – in Fort Collins and Pueblo – will both be open this fall. At our flagship Fort Collins campus, classes with more than 99 students have been moved online – and yet a full 70% of courses are slated to be delivered face-to-face or in a hybrid format. At CSU Pueblo, that number is 59%. These numbers are remarkable and far outpace most universities.

The engineering and planning required to make this happen cannot be overstated. Classroom setups, building schedules, and curricula have had to be reconfigured by faculty and staff who have worked throughout the spring and summer to make it happen. Professors who have spent their careers building up reputations and expertise in their disciplines have this year devoted precious summer work hours to improving their skills in online course delivery.

In other words, the experience for students will be different, but the learning they engage in and the credits they earn will hold no less value than those earned during easier times. Higher education was, and remains, a wise investment.

And yet, the reality is that students and families are all impacted by this pandemic in different ways, and many are facing tough economic hurdles that threaten to derail their academic dreams.

This is the same situation Colorado faced a decade ago. During the Great Recession, people were grappling with lost jobs and diminished prospects and trying to figure out how to stay afloat, just as many are today. Recognizing this struggle, the CSU System created what we then called the Commitment to Colorado – a set of scholarships designed to provide access to higher education to students whose families couldn’t otherwise afford it.

At our Fort Collins campus, where the program originated, this scholarship – now known as the Colorado Tuition Assistance Grant – has provided critical assistance to more than 19,500 students over the last decade. That’s roughly 20% of all our incoming freshmen. And the students who earn these scholarships graduate at a rate just 3% below that of the overall student body – proving that they are qualified and ready to succeed when given the chance. (That 3% is a number we’re proud of, given a national average of more than 10% for similar students at public universities nationwide. But we won’t rest until we make it zero.) At CSU Pueblo, the Commitment to Colorado Scholarships have helped support nearly 1,300 students. CSU Global has a program that guarantees admission and offers tuition discounts to Colorado Community College System graduates.

The thinking that drove us to create these grants is the same now as it was then: We don’t want talented students to give up on their higher education dreams because they think the cost is beyond their reach. That’s also why all of our campuses have frozen their tuition rates this year. For students who prefer online learning, CSU Global has been offering fully accredited, fully online degrees since 2007, and they haven’t increased tuition since 2011! They also offer no student fees, tuition planning, and a tuition guarantee that helps ensure students have a financial pathway to completing their degree before they enroll.

If anyone reading this knows of a student who is thinking of deferring their dreams because of economic hardship, I want to encourage them to reach out and talk to someone in the financial aid office at whatever institution they attend. At CSU, and at every campus in Colorado, our people are ready and able to provide counsel and support.

Higher education, even during these strange times, is a worthwhile investment. And our colleges and universities are invested in helping our students succeed.

– tony

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