A diverse populace requires improved higher education access
Illustration of a person holding up a triangle of stars.

By Rico Munn | Jan. 1, 2023

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS, look no further than the Aurora Public Schools. I serve roughly 38,000 students from 130 countries, speaking 160 languages; more than 74 percent receive free and reduced lunch, a proxy for poverty. This is the future demographic of higher education, and higher education is not ready.

Colleges and universities have made meaningful moves to support student access and equity. In particular, since the 1998 Kellogg Commission report “Returning to Our Roots: Student Access,” land-grant institutions have made “access to success” an imperative. But, too often, institutions have implemented reactive processes as a way of providing access (i.e., opening an extra door and seeing who comes in). To serve an increasingly diverse and complex populace, real access requires proactive work: opening a door, walking outside, and escorting others in as honored and valued colleagues. To that end, here are three ideas that might be explored:


There is no single path to success, but there are ways to identify successful experiences leading to degree completion. There are formal and informal ways to thrive and succeed in college – and different ways at different colleges. These might include participation in internships, fraternal organizations, research, athletics, and other opportunities. A process to intentionally identify success criteria at a particular institution allows for several things:

  • Publicizing criteria so students and families can crack the code;
  • Organizing student services around key indicators of success;
  • Deconstructing any criteria that are structurally biased; and,
  • Recognizing and formalizing structures around any criteria that have been left to chance.

CSU’s Tiered Advancement Process is a great example of moving toward proactive access. The approach emphasizes equitable advising practices and encourages advising staff to share student support frameworks with the broader community. The process of providing support and setting expectations around core advising competencies speaks to a promising approach for how to organize other student supports.

Another similar approach is the Proactive Advising model implemented at Georgia State University and championed by the University Innovation Alliance. The Proactive Advising model heavily relies on real-time data and analytics to drive increased and targeted interventions. At GSU, the Proactive Advising model has contributed to: increased meetings with advisers, increased graduation rates, and tuition savings. (Learn more.) These and other models indicate an important receptiveness to change in higher education.


Access and diversity efforts are often deficit-based, serving the “underserved,” “disadvantaged,” and students deemed “at risk.” In reality, every student has assets that make them a degree candidate.

A commitment to expand processes that align credentials with lived experiences could be a critical piece of proactive access work. For instance, the Joint Services Transcript provides a description of schooling received by military personnel while in service; it tells schools about skills people have gained and may lead to college credits. Such efforts could fundamentally impact affordability and perceived relevance of higher education.

The trend toward more diverse credentials is certainly not new. Numerous studies by workforce groups, universities, and the Colorado Department of Higher Education have touted increased stackable credentials – independent credentials that, when combined, can add up to a higher-level degree. A commitment to teaching, research, and service positions land-grant universities, such as CSU, to be premier players in this area. The use of trusted programs such as 4-H and Extension to lead these efforts would be both innovative and familiar to the community.


Finally, proactive access cannot be successful if it is centered (literally or figuratively) on campus. To be of community service, institutions need to be “of the community” – allied, connected, and committed. Community engagement is important work for the university, but to impact access and equity, higher education must be in common cause with the community. Allyship requires a shift in mindset.

Universities often leverage community engagement to improve the town and gown relationship. For land-grant institutions, however, the “gown” exists to serve the “town.” If the work of the university emanates from this mindset, then allyship is the logical conclusion. Allyship demands a continual process to understand and respond to the needs, interests, and desires of the “town” – Colorado first, and then the greater community connected to CSU.

Allyship asks guiding questions, such as: Who are the true stakeholders of our work? How does my presence impact others? Do I have privilege here, and how can I use that to benefit the whole? When viewed through this lens, being proactive about access is the natural consequence of a commitment to founding principles at many colleges and universities.

The world, as always, is changing in unpredictable ways. But it is easy to see that the future is diverse. To maintain relevance and value, higher education must shift its processes and mindset to serve a new mosaic of honored and valued colleagues.

Rico Munn, J.D., is superintendent of Aurora Public Schools. He served on the Board of Governors of the Colorado State University System from 2012 to 2019, including two years as board chair. He also served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education and has spent much of his career working to improve access and equity in education.

Illustration at top: Dave Cutler