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Gazette Premium Content Colorado campuses join forces to boost college graduation rate

KRISTINA IODICE Updated: December 30, 2010 at 12:00 am

Officials at several southern Colorado colleges and universities want to see a lot more local residents attend college.

To that end, a new collaboration is aimed at encouraging middle and high school students to continue their education past high school.

“It’s linking the whole K-12 system with the post-secondary system,” said University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak.

Statewide, fewer native-born Coloradans earn college degrees than those who move here from other states, according to UCCS.

In addition, about 19 percent of adults in southeastern Colorado have college degrees compared to almost 36 percent in metropolitan Denver. Correspondingly, income levels in southern Colorado are lower than those of northern Colorado.

In an effort to encourage more southern Coloradans to go to college, the Southern Colorado Higher Education Consortium was formed in June 2009. Its goals are to improve educational opportunities and the quality of life for residents, and support regional economic development.

With a federal grant in hand, a team will meet in January to design plans to meet those goals. The plan will go to presidents of member schools in February for approval.

Outreach to middle and high schools students will begin in fall, although it won’t be fully ramped up until the following year, Shockley-Zalabak said.

The plan is intended to be fluid.

“You’re supposed to try things and if it doesn’t work, you’re supposed to make changes,” she said. “You have the chance to be innovative that you don’t have in day-to-day operations.”

Consortium members are Adams State College, Colorado State University at Pueblo, Fort Lewis College, Lamar Community College, Otero Junior College, Pikes Peak Community College, Pueblo Community College, Trinidad State Junior College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Western State College.

Increasing college enrollment in two-year and four-year programs and technical training was a key factor in forming the consortium. A recent federal grant will enable the member institutions to build ties and create programs at area high schools and middle schools.

Higher education leaders have been concerned about boosting the number of local college graduates for five or six years, Shockley-Zalabak said.

“We decided we were just going to do it,” she said.

School leaders hope to reach students at more than 300 southern Colorado middle and high schools who have the potential to be the first in their family to attend college, are members of an ethnic minority group, or are low-income. They also will work to attract adult learners.

Jim Rizzuto, Otero Junior College president, said the campuses will work to create a collaborative program to streamline access to higher education, including making it easier to transfer from a two-year program to a four-year program and increased assistance with financial planning.

Individual schools will come up with ways to target the needs of their communities.

Otero Junior College, for example, brings in students from at least three counties, and could focus on scholarships and tutoring for local teenagers, Rizzuto said.

A recent $750,000 Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education grant from the U.S. Department of Education will help kick off the programs.

Shockley-Zalabak traveled to Washington, D.C., in December for a final grant-approval meeting. She presented ideas from the consortium and picked up ideas from other groups whose projects are in progress.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said.

The intent is to create programs that can continue after the grant has ended in three years, Shockley-Zalabak said. She believes Cisco’s partnership with UCCS will help further the goals. It’s the first such partnership for the technology company, headquartered in California.

Cisco programs and equipment enable students to take classes from teachers who are miles away. For example, Otero students can enroll in a robotics class taught at UCCS.

“They can work while upgrading their education without leaving the area,” Rizzuto said. “We’re trying to adapt to their needs.”

Shockley-Zalabak said one idea she picked up in Washington is aimed at getting the entire family involved in a student’s education. She said another grant recipient had schools set basic writing assignments that engage parents and guardians, and that helps retention rates.

The 10 schools in the consortium know enrollment growth will not come overnight, and the work will change as challenges arise.

“The institutions are very open to working together and very focused on what is best for the student and not the institution,” Rizzuto said. “We plan to continue the momentum to attract more students.”

Shockley-Zalabak would like to eliminate the college degree gap between northern and southern Colorado, but she said she would consider even single-digit improvement over five years an achievement.

“This is down-in-the- trenches stuff,” she said. “This is where we need to be.”

Contact the writer at 636-0162.

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