Shining a spotlight on college degree value and affordability
Illustration of a person on a mountaintop.

By Tony Frank | Jan. 1, 2023

STATE IS AN AWARD-WINNING MAGAZINE launched in 2018 to tell the rich, diverse stories of the CSU System and its campuses. This new publication, STATE Spotlight, is an offshoot of that work – but different. In this annual Spotlight edition, we’re going to take an in-depth look at a single issue that matters to Colorado and its future – to shine a spotlight on not just the problem, but on various perspectives and potential solutions.

Our first STATE Spotlight looks at higher education affordability and value and their critical linkages to access and debt. These issues are obviously close to my own heart – and also impact the lives of students and families, as well as our state’s industries and communities. The topics cause some angst for policymakers, who invariably agree that higher education is important but don’t always agree on who should be paying for it – and how.

These issues are deep in data. You’ll see that in the following pages. There is a lot of data out there to tell what amounts to a fairly simple story:


Higher education continues to be the surest path to economic prosperity and improved quality of life for Americans (although it’s surely not the only one). Our colleagues at the University of Colorado have done a wonderful job quantifying the many ways a college credential adds value to a person’s life in their “Value Index,” including but not limited to higher earning potential over a lifetime. (Explore the Index.) This is one of the reasons we are seeing continued record enrollment on our CSU System campuses – many students and parents understand the value proposition. In one of our guest columns, Denver Metro Chamber CEO J. J. Ament discusses the importance of higher education attainment to our state’s economy.


Even with the return on investment well-established, there are people who dream of earning an education but never will because they are convinced they can’t afford it – when the truth is that there is significant financial support available, and public colleges and universities are far less expensive than many people think. The personal testimony of Cody Gamet, who earned two associate degrees at Aims Community College while working hourly wage jobs, is recounted in this issue and is as powerful as any data set I can offer. Students find ways to make it happen. (Cody is now continuing his education at CSU Global.) And one point that’s often missed: More than half the total cost of attendance for students at public colleges in Colorado is for living expenses – costs that many people over age 18 have to shoulder whether they are in college or not.


Unfortunately, the reality of college affordability is often clouded by a persistent and inaccurate public narrative that higher education costs are out of control and that a degree, by necessity, comes with paralyzing levels of student debt. In reality, nearly half the college students in Colorado graduated in 2021 with no debt at all. And those who had debt, on average, owed about $25,000 when they got their degree. In fact, student debt among Colorado residents has been on a steady downward trend since 2014. Dr. Sandy Baum, the nation’s leading expert on student debt and college affordability, lays down the facts in this issue.

The reality of college affordability is often clouded by a persistent and inaccurate public narrative that higher education costs are out of control and that a degree, by necessity, comes with paralyzing levels of student debt."


The good news about college affordability is tempered by the fact that 37 percent of babies born in Colorado will grow up unprepared to attend college, a number that skyrockets in communities of color. We in higher ed have a responsibility to work with our colleagues in K-12 and within our communities to address the unacceptable loss of human talent. There are a number of bold, national experiments in this space, and Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, explores that topic in this issue.


Borrowing for education is affordable only if you actually earn a degree. People who take on debt and leave without a diploma wind up seriously behind the curve, and we need to do a better job of providing access and support for degree completion and alternative credentialing. This was one of the reasons we created CSU Global as a fully online alternative and why we’re working with higher ed colleagues in Colorado and nationally to deploy more learn-while-you-work models, shorter-term credentials, and pathways for students for whom a traditional, residential college experience isn’t the right answer.


Student access, affordability, and success are all key parts of the equation. And all of the data add up to a strong case for a renewed societal imperative: Our country’s economic and democratic future requires that all of our children have access to an affordable and excellent system of education. Our parents and grandparents invested in public schools that made that possible for many of us – and we owe it to future generations to ensure they have the same and better opportunities. Now is the time to redouble this commitment, not back away from it.

Tony Frank, D.V.M., Ph.D., is chancellor of the Colorado State University System. The System includes CSU in Fort Collins, CSU Pueblo, and CSU Global.

Illustration at top: Dave Cutler