An Exclusive Interview with Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia

Joe 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.

Cordova: Regarding the Concurrent Enrollment Programs Act that allows Colorado high school students to take college classes, 304 high schools participated, but only 18 colleges participated in the state. Do you have a plan to get more colleges participating?

Garcia: Well, they already are. It’s been growing each year; we get a few more. I think last year we got six more. But right now, you can take these concurrent enrollment courses to any of the schools, whether they offer the courses themselves or not. So, if you get concurrent enrollment courses through your high school through University A, you can usually take those courses to University B anyways. It’s just like the advance placement courses. Those colleges don’t offer them, but they accept those credits, and right now about one fifth of the students in the state who are juniors and seniors are enrolled in a concurrent enrollment course.

And that’s good because we know those students are a lot more likely to enroll in college. They’re a lot more likely to be on track and persist because they’ve got some credits they’re taking with them. So our goal is to make sure more students get that, and it’s a cost savings issue as well. If you can get a bunch of your credits while you’re still in high school, then you don’t have to pay for them through Pikes Peak. You still have them, but then you get to take, and only need, maybe a years’ worth of courses instead of two.

Cordova: Several countries overseas allow students to go to school for little or no tuition. Why can they do this but we can’t?

Garcia: Because they’re willing to invest more, and we aren’t, really. They have a much higher tax rate. They collect a lot more money from their citizens. You know, here in the United States, and especially in Colorado, we complain about paying taxes, but that’s what funds the schools.

In some of those countries, though, they have high-stakes tests. You don’t get to automatically go to school. You have to demonstrate through tests that you’re worthy of it. So a lot of kids that want to go to college just don’t get to go. It’s not a function of cost, it’s a function of these are slots the state is paying for, and there’s only a limited number of them.

Here, we try to have universal access. Anybody who wants to go to college can go. You can go to Pikes Peak without a high school diploma. You can go to Pikes Peak if you failed all of your classes in high school. You can go to Pikes Peak if you’re 16 or if you’re 60. That’s not the case everywhere in the world, so if we want more people to go, it’s just more costly. We don’t limit access, but [we do limit] affordability. If we wanted to do otherwise, we would have to pay a lot more taxes. Because what you’re not paying in tuition, somebody else has to pay for. Or we have to control costs.

You know, I visited a lot of universities in China last year. Students would live four to six in a small dorm room. The classrooms weren’t heated. They didn’t have all of the fancy stuff that our students want. Our students create part of the problem because when they go to school, they want a really nice place with a nice rec center and nice facilities and good technology and nice dorm rooms, and all those things cost money. So students, at the same time, always complain about costs, but they also want more amenities, which drives up costs.

Cordova: Very true. Earlier you said that Colorado is one of the most educated states, but a lot of the students here aren’t from here. Why do you think that is?

Garcia: Well, let’s think about that. Compare, let’s say, North Dakota to Colorado. If you have a college degree, where would you rather go? And if you’re from North Dakota and you went to the University of North Dakota and got your degree, you look around and think, “Man, I’d rather be in Colorado.” So we attract a lot of well-educated people in town. It’s not that we’re preventing our kids from going, it’s just that we’re an attractive place. You see the same thing in Oregon, or Washington D.C. Places people want to go, so they come with a credential in hand.

But we also don’t send enough of our high school kids on to colleges. There’s no question. And part of that, I think, is the functioning of affordability. We need to do a better job of getting our own kids [to college]. A third of them, if you look at the K-12 system, are Hispanic. A large number of those are low income and first generation. Their parents didn’t go to college. So those kids are less likely to go. You’re more likely to go to college if you’re parents went to college.

Cordova: Where in this picture do the community colleges fit in? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of attending a community college?

Garcia: Advantages are flexibility, cost, certainly saving a lot of money, usually there’s one close by, you don’t have to move away, you can live at home, schedules are more flexible so you can work and go to school, but that’s also a disadvantage because if you’re a full-time student and all the people who are around you in class are full-time students, there’s just a culture of college success that I think isn’t always there at a community college. And so if you did well in high school, and then you enrolled in community college, and your twin did just as well, everything was the same, and went to a four-year college, your twin is more likely to get a degree than you are at a community college.

My message to students, though, is always go to the best college you can get into and that you can afford to get into. Now, my community college colleagues won’t like that, but it is a problem. You know, the biggest problems we have with community colleges right now is we’re saying that’s where more than 50% of Hispanics that start college start at a community college, and that’s not the case for Anglo students: the vast majority start college start at a four year school. I would say it’s fine that 50% start at a community college if they were successful and would get an associate’s degree and go on, but their success rate is pretty low.

That’s why all the statewide master plan performance contracts are so important because they say whether you are CU or PPCC. You need to focus on student success, not just student enrollment. We’re trying to get all of the schools to make that part of their culture.

Cordova: Do you think the military will continue to pay military members to attend college even though rates keep rising?

Garcia: Rates keep rising, but it’s something this country has been committed to, to helping its military veterans go to school. My biggest concern, Anjelica, is that most of those military vets aren’t going to public schools. They want to go to for-profit schools [like] Colorado Tech University. You know. Some of those schools are good, but a lot of them are really bad, a lot are really expensive, and they say, “Hey we’re private. We’re doing this without public money.” But they’re far more reliant on public money than Pikes Peak is because all of their students are getting Pell Grants, the GI Bill, and federally insured student loans.

That’s what’s keeping those for-profit schools afloat. That’s what my biggest concern is. I don’t think those schools generally are as good, and they’re more expensive. And so, those students who go to Pikes Peak, and the military, would save money. They would pick up fewer loans.

Cordova: So how do we get those students to go to. . . .

Garcia: We have to make them aware. Quite frankly, are you ever home during the day watching TV on a week day? Probably not because you’re probably always working or at school. If you were, you would see nothing but TV ads for the for-profit schools. They’re worse than, you know, used-car salesmen. They’re constantly pitching, and so you see that and think, all they are saying is, “You go to school for free. We will give you a laptop. We’ve got scholarships.”

So they sign people up. They sign them up. It’s a very aggressive marketing campaign that our public schools don’t do. You know, public schools sit around and wait for you to show up. The for-profit schools will go after you. And that’s why I think a lot of students, and especially those whose parents didn’t go to school, don’t know the difference between the University of Colorado and [for-profit schools], and there’s a big difference.

Cordova: How severely do financial struggles affect student performance in college?

Garcia: No question, they do. Students decide they need more money, so they want to work more hours. They get a job, and the minute you stop focusing on being a student, then that becomes sort of what you do when you have time, but your real focus is on your job. I think whenever you lose focus, you’re less likely to be successful. You don’t have the time, so you try to earn money, so you’re taking fewer credit hours, and you’re spending less time doing your school work. You’re less rested, you’re more stressed . All of those have an impact on your ability to be successful.

You’re a student. I mean, you tell me — if you’re working, doesn’t that have an impact on your ability to be more successful?

Cordova: Yes, I’m working and a full-time student.

Garcia: It’s hard to balance that, right?

Cordova: Yes, it is. Along similar lines, what initiatives are in place to assist minority groups in order to see them succeed in higher education?

Garcia: Well, a lot of them in this state are targeted by name as minority groups. They’re targeted as first-generation and low-income students. And those can be from any ethnic background. But they turn out to be disproportionately from minority backgrounds. So, what we’re saying to the schools is, “There’s got to be scholarships available,” and so a lot of these schools are investing a lot more of their own money in scholarships.

At a school like Pikes Peak, or a school like CU, there will be support programs targeting specific minority groups because they want them to be successful. At PPCC, for example, there’s a guy named Eddie Hughes who gets paid to focus on African-American males because they have the worst success rates, and to be there to mentor them. Many schools have different programs like that, everything from math labs to cultural centers, to bring people from similar backgrounds to create a support system. When I was at CU, I was ready to drop out until I got involved in something called United Mexican-American Students, and then the Chicano Business Students Association. When I got involved in those groups and found myself among a group of students who were like me, wanted to see me succeed, and we all would support each other, I went from academic probation to Dean’s List. And really, the only difference was getting involved in those organizations and focusing on my performance in a different way. I think all of those things came in to help.

Cordova: I also found out that you went to Harvard.

Garcia: Yes, I did go to law school.

Cordova: Is there a major difference between Harvard and Colorado?

Garcia: Yeah. I mean, at Harvard, everybody was a really good student. They had been good students all their lives. The competition was different. But on the other hand, everybody knew they were going to be perfectly successful, and they were all going to be able to get jobs, so in some ways there was less competition because we knew the real competition was to get in. Once we were in, we were doing OK, so that was the big difference. At Harvard, I wouldn’t succeed unless I was involved in the Chicano law student organization there, and we all supported each other, and I was president of that organization, and just made friends who I still stay in contact with to this day several years later because we want to see each other succeed.

Cordova: How do you feel about the amount of debt students graduate with?

Garcia: Horrible. It’s going up every year. On average in Colorado, it’s about $26-27,000, I think, when they graduate. And it’s really almost as bad for graduates of the community colleges as for the four-year schools. It’s partly our problem because we take students who don’t have a high level of financial literacy. They don’t really understand loans; they don’t really understand setting up a monthly budget. They come into the financial aid office at Pikes Peak and fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and then we give them a package and we say, “We will give you this much in Pell Grant, this much in Pikes Peak grant, this much in student loans.” We don’t tell students you have to take all of this. Only take what you absolutely need. Live on the cheap. You’re in college. You’re supposed to be a little bit miserable. But instead, students take all the loans we offer.

Now, a lot of students don’t complete, or they complete but end up with a degree that doesn’t get them a high-paying job, and they’ve got $25,000 in debt. Had they done things differently, maybe they would have come out with $10,000 in debt, so part of it is educating the students on why they don’t want to take all that loan money just because it’s available. You know what I’m saying? It’s like if I say I’m going to loan you 50 bucks, or I’ll loan you 20, you’ll say, “Well, I’ll take the 50,” even if you don’t really need it, even if you can get by with the 20. Because you’re not thinking about paying it back, you’re just thinking about spending it. It seems easier to think about it that way. It hurts in the long run.

Cordova: Should student loan rates be regulated and kept low, or should they vary with the market?

Garcia: Well, the market right now is low. I think they should be kept low because we want students to get an education. If you get an education, it’s not just good for you. It’s good for everyone because you’re out there as part of the taxpaying public, which is a lot better than being on welfare, where some of our money is going to support you instead of some of your earnings going to support us when we retire. So, I would say if we want kids to go to school, we have to make it affordable for them, and that means providing grants, keeping tuition down, and keeping loan rates down. All of those things don’t just impact what you owe. They help determine what you’re likely to finish.

Cordova: So, do you see the state offering more scholarships, more grants, and do you see the country offering more?

Garcia: What the state and the country both have to do is figure out how to provide grants and loans that pay off for us. If we were to give you $50,000, but we thought it was maybe a one in ten chance that you would graduate and be able to pay that back, that’s not worth the investment. We need to figure out how to invest that money in you knowing you’re far more likely than not to succeed and be in some way able to pay it back. Right now, a lot of our Pell grants, billions and billions of dollars, get wasted on students who never show up for one day of class. How do we make sure that we’re getting something back for that?

So yes, we need to continue to invest, but we need to try to reward students who work hard, reward students who did well in high school, and reward students who persist. And then we need to reward the schools. Like this year, you’re going to see as part of the governor’s budget a substantial increase in the amount of financial aid dollars available for Colorado students — biggest increase ever. That will be announced later this week.

But what we want to do is make sure that that money isn’t just thrown at students who aren’t going anywhere. What we’re telling schools is, “If you’re successful, we’ll give you more for a sophomore than for a freshman, and more for a junior than sophomore, more for a senior than a junior,” so that Pikes Peak or CSU will have an incentive to help you move from freshman to sophomore to junior so they will get a little bit more money. They’ll get a bigger share of that money. So what we hope that they do is they invest in tutors and math labs and counselors to help you succeed. That’s an important goal.

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When our half hour was up, Lt. Gov. Garcia wished me the best of luck in my future endeavors. I thanked him, we shook hands, and I headed back to Colorado Springs with admiration for the man. His answers were often refreshingly blunt, and one can see why. He delivers his messages with transparency and conviction because they make sense and because he knows what is at stake for this country. He applies visionary theory to a system in need of constant oversight and modification, all the while maintaining concern for the students to whom he relates. Every one of our politicians should share the same respect for the Academy.