By Monte Whaley | Photography by Mary Neiberg

Last spring, Cory Henry joined other seniors for graduation from Hinkley High School in Aurora, on the eastern edge of Denver. About 350 students gathered in the auxiliary gym at an events center, waiting for the ceremony to begin. They rustled in bright blue caps and gowns, anticipating their rite of passage and paths beyond high school.

Henry hoped to study business and construction management in college, but those hopes were covered with question marks. He had applied for a few scholarships and thought his good grades and participation in sports and leadership programs would help him land financial support. Yet he still wasn’t sure where he would enroll or exactly how he’d pay for college.

Then, a school counselor took the gym microphone. Henry’s future came to him in a surprise announcement moments before graduation: He was named a Golden Eagle Scholar – one of the first seven students to graduate from Aurora Public Schools with a four-year, full-ride scholarship to Colorado State University Global. The scholarships provide a leg up for motivated Aurora high school graduates who want the flexibility of online coursework and who couldn’t afford college without financial aid.

Cory Henry
Cory Henry, a graduate of Hinkley High School in Aurora, is among the first Golden Eagle Scholars to attend CSU Global with a full-ride scholarship made possible by the new partnership between Aurora Public Schools and the university.

“Whoa! Are you serious?” Henry exclaimed as he heard the news. “That’s crazy – thank you so much!”

Henry recalled the excitement as he finished his first three-credit college course, Introduction to Business, with an A in the grade log. Just as he had hoped, he is majoring in business and construction management through the nation’s first fully online public university with accredited degree programs.

The CSU Global freshman aims to own and run a construction company, maybe branching into home sales. In addition to his studies, Henry is gaining on-the-job training, having worked for a Denver builder for three years and counting. His summertime construction work recently became a full-time job, so he’s earning a solid income while completing online college coursework at night and on the weekends.

“I’m super thankful I got the scholarship because, when I’m finished with college, I can focus on my career without worrying about paying off debt,” he said.

The Golden Eagle Scholarship program is part of a new partnership between Aurora Public Schools and CSU Global. The affiliation boosts access to high-quality, career-focused college education and workforce development in Colorado. It revolves around a real-estate deal: an innovative space-for-scholarships swap that officials have called the first of its kind in the nation between a school district and a public university. The deal was authorized with legislation signed into law in Spring 2016; it was set in motion that fall, when Aurora voters approved a $300 million bond issue to fulfill building and technology needs across the school district.

The district used $8 million of the bond revenue to construct a building for CSU Global administrative offices. The online university recently signed a 10-year lease and moved its headquarters from the Denver Tech Center to the Aurora Public Schools Community Campus near Buckley Air Force Base. But instead of paying rent in cash, CSU Global is providing in-kind payments in the form of scholarships and substantially discounted university courses for the school district’s recent graduates, older alumni, and employees. Even current Aurora high school students are eligible for tuition discounts if they are dually enrolled in CSU Global courses.

The district envisions the total value of these discounts – in tuition savings, expanded career opportunities, and increased long-term earnings – will exceed the $6.3 million that CSU Global would pay in rent over the next 10 years, according to the terms of its lease. (The lease agreement also provides the options of cash payments or a combination of cash and in-kind payments, based on the school district’s preference.)

For the Golden Eagle Scholars, the deal equates to at least $7,500 per year for four years, amounting to free tuition for an online bachelor’s degree. Other graduates from Aurora Public Schools, as well as district employees pursuing bachelor’s degrees, are eligible for a 24 percent discount on CSU Global tuition. School employees who have bachelor’s degrees and want to enroll in graduate courses get a bigger break: 33 percent off the standard tuition rate.

The district expects the space-for-scholarships swap to help fulfill its mission. “Our partnership with CSU Global expands our offerings, reduces barriers to higher education, and provides professional development opportunities to our staff and students,” said Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, who recently served on and chaired the Board of Governors of the Colorado State University System. To put those benefits into perspective, nearly 2,000 students graduated from Aurora high schools last spring, and some 5,700 employees work for the district.

Reducing barriers is especially important for students who need financial aid and must navigate work, family, and other responsibilities to pursue college degrees, Munn noted. This describes many graduates. Aurora Public Schools is the fifth-largest district in Colorado, serving about 40,000 students in more than 60 schools. The district has a notably diverse population, with students from more than 130 countries who speak more than 160 languages; many are among the first in their families to pursue college.

Providing students with educational options and support is central to the district’s ability to realize its strategic goals: that each student will have a plan for the future; that each will have skills to implement the plan; and that each student will have credentials needed to open doors. “It’s the district’s vision that every student shape a successful future,” Munn said.

That vision resonates with Becky Takeda-Tinker, president and chief executive officer of CSU Global. The online university launched in 2007 to provide flexible, affordable, high-caliber degree programs, tailored for working students who want to enter – or advance in – promising career fields. Takeda-Tinker often notes that the fully online model does not meet the needs of all college learners. Yet for an increasing number of modern learners, online education is a critical path to degrees that unlock career opportunities, simultaneously promoting workforce development and the economy.

Since CSU Global began, more than 18,000 students have completed certificates, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees through the online university. Nearly 20,000 students are now enrolled in its 45 degree and certificate programs. About 40 percent of those students are in Colorado; others live across the nation and around the world. With its mission of providing career-relevant degree programs for nontraditional learners, CSU Global seeks innovations in the delivery of its courses and in the partnerships it forms to help fulfill student and workforce needs. The approach has resulted in its No. 8 national ranking among “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs,” according to U.S. News & World Report.

An interest in innovation led to the new partnership with Aurora Public Schools. “This really continues our mission of providing access to higher education for students who choose not to pursue a traditional college education because of financial limitations, work demands, and personal responsibilities,” Takeda-Tinker said. “We believe our partnership will make it easier for students to pursue their goals and will help provide positive change for students and families in the community of Aurora.”

That big idea took on personal meaning when Takeda-Tinker met the first Golden Eagle Scholars and their parents and guardians at an orientation session last summer. “It was wonderful,” she said. “The parents and guardians were especially excited because they understand the enormity of having college in reach for their kids. It is an awesome feeling to help move those students forward and to help make college education a reality for them.”

Aliya Hayes
Aliya Hayes, in the first cohort of Golden Eagle Scholars, is using her full-ride scholarship to prepare for a career in the medical field of optometry.

Aliya Hayes, a graduate of Vista PEAK Preparatory, is another student in the first cohort of Golden Eagle Scholars. She hopes to provide vision care in the field of optometry, an interest inspired in part by her mom, who works as a medical imaging technician. “She always talks about all the interesting things she does and how she is really helping people,” Hayes said. “I want to do that – help people.”

Hayes has already taken sociology and literature classes through CSU Global and has managed her course work while increasing her hours at the sandwich shop where she works. With a full scholarship and her first college courses successfully completed, Hayes is feeling optimistic about her future. “I looked at the tuition at a lot of schools, and I thought, ‘Gosh, I’ll never be able to afford that,’” she said. “All of a sudden, I’m thinking, ‘I know what I am doing for the next four years.’ So far, it’s been great.”

For Ryan Baranovics, college seemed impossible before he graduated from Aurora Central High School last spring. Then, he learned he had been awarded a Golden Eagle Scholarship. “Going to college fulfills a dream I have always had,” Baranovics said. “I am excited and scared, but most of all I am grateful.”