Colorado Rises

Illustration by Dave Cutler

First return-on-investment report examines the value of higher education

Wondering if a college degree is really worth it?

Amid nationwide concerns over increasing tuition and student debt, the Colorado Department of Higher Education recently released an analysis answering that question with an unequivocal “yes.”

Yet, urgent challenges remain in holding down costs while expanding opportunities for students to earn degrees, the analysis finds.

The report, Colorado Rises: Maximizing Value for Students and Our State, reviews return on investment in public higher education in Colorado and evaluates how tuition price, debt, choice, and value affect a college student’s trajectory. It is the first in a series of annual reports produced by the Colorado Department of Higher Education to inform lawmakers, taxpayers, and students and their families about the value of public postsecondary education in the state.

Colorado Rises reveals that 75 percent of Colorado jobs, and 97 percent of the best jobs – with greatest opportunity for growth and pay – require training and education beyond high school.

Moreover, graduates of Colorado’s public colleges and universities realize higher wages that mount over time. For instance, the median wage for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, the category with highest earnings, is $43,420 one year after graduation; that median income grows by 75 percent to $76,054 a decade later.

“Earning a postsecondary credential can positively impact the lives of students and improve Colorado’s society broadly,” the report concludes. College graduates improve Colorado’s labor market and contribute to competitiveness, while increased wages add significantly to the state tax base and economy.

Balancing wage data, the report summarizes student debt in Colorado. Of students who graduated in 2018 with bachelor’s degrees, 69 percent left college with debt averaging $25,500. The study describes that debt load as generally manageable – comparable to an automobile loan.

This compares favorably to national data. Among students who borrow to attend public universities nationwide, the average debt at graduation is $27,610, according to the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities. Yet, compared to high school graduates, those with bachelor’s degrees realize average additional lifetime earnings of $1 million, the APLU reports.

In Colorado, the majority of students attending public colleges and universities receive some form of financial aid, according to Colorado Rises. Nearly 90 percent of students at two-year colleges and 72 percent of students at four-year universities receive a mix of federal, state, and institutional aid that reduces overall cost of attendance. “Thanks to this support, students from low- and middle-income families often attend for very low cost or even tuition-free,” the report says.

It further stresses the critical need for expanded student access to higher education – achieved through financial aid and other means – and the importance of degree completion.

On these points, Colorado State University, flagship of the CSU System, has made notable gains. The university has increased financial aid for students by more than 80 percent in the last five years, and average student debt at graduation is holding at about $25,000, below state and national averages. CSU students also are graduating faster, thus limiting debt and entering the workforce quicker.

Meantime, the Board of Governors of the CSU System recently committed to a long-term investment of $7.8 million in an array of CSU-Pueblo programs to support student success. CSU Global, the System’s third university, often measures program relevance based on employer satisfaction, because a majority of students are working full time while pursuing degrees. Employers have reported a 94 percent satisfaction rate with CSU Global alumni; a recent economic impact study further showed CSU Global graduates experience $4 in higher earning potential for every $1 they invest in education through the online university.

While analyzing the benefits of postsecondary education, Colorado Rises identifies a prime reason for rising tuition in the state and nation: declining state investment in public colleges and universities. In fact, Colorado ranks 47th in the nation based on state appropriations for postsecondary education, according to the report. That low investment, combined with impacts of the Great Recession, is a core reason for climbing tuition costs in the last decade, the report explains. Experts refer to this trend as the defunding of public higher education. In short, responsibility for the lion’s share of tuition costs has shifted over time from the state to students and their families.

Colorado Rises “underscores the importance of making higher education more affordable and innovative to contain costs,” the authors write.
Colorado Department of Higher Education’s Annual Return on Investment Report