An Exclusive Interview with Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia

joe garciaJoe Garcia, the Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, has been engaged in academic oversight and guidance for quite some time, having served as President of Pikes Peak Community College and Colorado State University-Pueblo. He is also dedicated to ensuring that high school students bridge the gap between high school academic performance and college entrance requirements. Put simply, one of the Lieutenant Governor’s life-long missions is to help students facilitate their ability to succeed academically and professionally.

Nevertheless, as tuition rates continue their disturbing ascent, many students now find it an overwhelming struggle to go to college to obtain a certificate or degree. Recently, I met with the Lieutenant Governor at the Colorado State Capitol Building to gain some insight into the current circumstances surrounding higher education. After greeting me with a warm smile and firm handshake, Garcia entered into a lucid conversation that left me impressed by his honesty and willingness to share in a serious public dialogue on the state’s academic realities.


Cordova: Lieutenant Governor, once you assumed office, what was your most pressing concern regarding higher education in the state?

Garcia: Well, there were sort of two sides of the same concern. One is affordability for students, especially for students who come from working-class backgrounds who don’t have a lot of money. The other side of that is decreasing state support for the colleges and universities. The way colleges get money is they get your tuition, but they also get money that comes from the state through the taxpayer.

And it used to be about two thirds of the money came from the state and about one third came from the students, but over the last 10 years, it has completely shifted. Now, students are paying about two thirds of the total cost, and the state is paying a third or less, which is why tuition goes up. The schools say, “If we get less money from the state, we have to get more money from somewhere else.” So, when funding from the state goes down, the tuition goes up, and this is what I was concerned about.

Cordova: Why do you think state funding is going down so dramatically?

Garcia: Well, for several reasons. One is that the amount of general fund, the tax money coming in, hasn’t really kept pace with population growth, more certainly student population growth. And then there are more demands. For example, the state contributions to Medicaid have gone up. The Medicaid caseload has grown. So when more money gets pulled away to go fund other things, it’s just that higher ed is seen as having another option. You can’t take money away from another agency, because it doesn’t have another way to generate money. So mainly, it’s being taken away from the colleges, and they say, “Well, you can just raise tuition.” And then we don’t like it when they raise tuition. But that’s what forces them to do this.

Cordova: Ah, makes sense. I was looking at Senate Bill 11-052, and it mandated a better alignment of primary and secondary education and the state system of higher education. What are some of your thoughts on this?

Garcia: That’s an interesting bill because what it really tried to do was say, “What is the purpose of higher education?” We want to provide a well-educated workforce that can help the economy grow. It also begins to recognize what I think we have ignored for too long. Colleges and universities and the K-12 system have never really worked together. So, you may meet all of your high school graduation requirements, but that doesn’t say anything about the college saying you have met the college admission requirements. So we say, “Why is there this disconnect?’ We need to ensure that colleges are tied to public school systems so students know that when they graduate from high school, they are ready for college.

You know, at Pikes Peak [Community College], a lot of these students need remedial education, which means they come in and they’re not taking college level courses; they’re still taking high school level courses, but they already graduated from high school. So what we need to do is get those systems to work across that boundary and say, “This is confusing for students. We’re setting students up for failure.” They seem to think they’re ready for college, but they’re not. How do we tell them otherwise? Or how do we change graduation guidelines and admission requirements or vice versa?

So, the bill did a number of things. One, it said to colleges and universities, “We want to evaluate you based on your performance.” It’s not enough to just enroll students. We want you to graduate them. When I was President at Pikes Peak, and I feel really bad about this now, every semester we would just try to get more students, but what we weren’t focusing enough on was what happens to them after they get there. For a lot of those students, we collected their tuition for a semester or a year, and then they disappeared. They never graduated. They never got anything out of it. And now we’re saying, “College, if you admit a student, you have an obligation to help that student succeed and earn a credential: a nursing degree, a CNA certificate, something.”

So that’s what this is about, us saying we’re going to [follow through on] several parts of this performance contract. We say schools have to focus on graduation; they have to focus on degree obtainment gaps. Right now, if you’re an Anglo student, you’re far more likely to graduate than if you’re a Hispanic student. Colorado is one of the best educated states in the country because about almost 40% of our population has some kind of college degree, but it’s over 50% for our Anglo population. For our Latino population, it’s about 17%. So we’ve got that big gap, and we’re saying, “Colleges, you’ve got to focus on that.”

And then, concerning remediation, when students come in in need of a remedial course, we shouldn’t be measuring success by whether they pass that remedial course, but whether they pass after completing that remedial, a college level class, and lets figure out how to make sure the students aren’t spending so much time in remediation that they’re just wasting time and money and not going anywhere. So those are the pieces that came out of the bill. It’s complicated. There’s a lot to it.

Cordova: How do you explain this big gap between the Anglo and Latino populations?

Garcia: For a lot of reasons. One is, Latino students are less likely to graduate from high school than white students, so you can’t blame the colleges for that. They’re also, when they graduate high school, less likely to enroll in college than Anglo students. I’m not sure who you blame for that. Part of it, I suppose, has to do with affordability, and then even if they enroll in college, they’re more likely to need remediation. They’re less likely to enter into college-level classes. And that’s partly a function of where they went to school and the quality of the school systems they attended.

But then even after they enroll in college, they’re less likely to persist and to graduate. So that’s a problem. Few ever graduate from high school, few ever graduate from high school college ready, fewer enroll, and even if they enroll, fewer graduate. So we’re just weeding them out all along the way. That’s bad for Colorado, not just Latino students, because that’s our future workforce, and if we can’t educate our Latino students, we’re not going to have enough other folks to fill all the other jobs that require a college degree.

So what we’re saying to the colleges as part of their performance agreement is they have to do a better job of recruiting, enrolling, retaining, and graduating minority students, which makes colleges a little uncomfortable because they say, “It’s not our fault if they don’t make it.” If you’re admitting them, then you have a responsibility to help them succeed. You can’t just admit them and then if they wash out after a semester, you think you’ve done your job. That’s a real focus here for us.

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