Students stream up the staircase to the new CASE Center at the University of Colorado on Jan. 21, 2020. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

The pandemic has clearly exposed the faulty underpinnings and systemic problems with our larger health-care system. Rightly so, advocates are calling for systemic change — change in how we insure people, change in how we provide safety net services, and change in how we keep all people safe and healthy. 

Yet, the root causes in our life that decisively predetermine the likelihood that someone will be healthy are getting overlooked. We can solve, or pointedly reduce, many of Colorado’s systemic health disparities by supporting opportunities for our neighbors to go to and complete college. 

Access to higher education continues to shine significantly on these disparities, and closing related academic achievement and workforce mobility gaps continue to show up in strategic priorities established by  agencies such as the Colorado Department of Higher Education (2019) and the Colorado Workforce Development Council (2020), among others. 

Nathan Cadena

It is past time for Colorado to prioritize our first-generation students of color from low-income to communities to bridge income and health disparities.

The College Board maintains that a degree equates to $25,000 more in average annual income than someone with a high school diploma. In practical terms, that’s one of many sources that show a base economic divide of an additional $12 per hour.  Related to so many other life and social improvements, we know that higher education means you are more likely to live longer.

I have the incredible responsibility of working with the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) team, which helps students in the Denver Public Schools realize their dream of going to college (technical, community college, or university) and graduating with a certificate or degree.

If I can tell you one thing I’ve learned from my work with Denver’s greatest and brightest, it’s that higher education changes lives, but not everyone starts off equally. In fact, that’s why DSF exists — to help hundreds and thousands of students to begin climbing. 

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To date, DSF has surpassed $48 million in scholarships to our student leaders, and of these students, 83% are still enrolled or have graduated with a degree. 

But getting through the front door is just the first hurdle. I’ve witnessed some of the most promising and passionate students stumble because they did not have, or successfully navigate, the college resources they needed to succeed once they arrived. 

We witness all types of hard lessons learned in search of a healthy life for our scholars and their families. Every student is well aware of where they and their communities fit on the equity spectrum. And in these equations, students are aware of what gaps they and their families fit into, and ultimately what gaps need to be filled. 

As first-generation and low-income students know, it is up to them to find a way to succeed, but invisible to their peers may be the distant starting blocks where they began. While navigating college our students are also balancing the time, effort, and financial contributions to their core family’s household.

Can you imagine getting into college — something the arc your familial history would tell you was not possible — only to struggle because you need to work and seek help to catch up academically with students coming from affluent school districts? You beat all of the odds life threw at you, only to fall through the cracks because you process in a different language or you are juggling through family responsibilities.

About 88% of DSF scholars are first-generation college students and 92% identify as students of color. For the many we serve, there is no “traditional student.” We do know most hold jobs around course schedules and are continuously conscious of familial needs at home. 

Although this is common and sometimes requires that students get support from the college they attend, our current higher education funding model does not alleviate these added social and affordability stressors for these students. 

We partner with 31 Colorado institutions of higher education. The wrap-around services they provide are the key to students finishing and can be the driving force behind graduating or dropping out. 

Our partners go above and beyond for our scholars and offer these resources because they know if they do, their students can benefit from the pride and prosperity that a college education provides. Still, they are not allocated the necessary funding to ensure these students graduate.

This year, Colorado must make good on the promise that all students can go to college. By making them a priority, the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee can send a loud message that the ambitions, contributions, and dreams of underrepresented minority, low-income, and first-generation students are welcome and celebrated in Colorado. 

Maintaining the higher-education funding status quo in Colorado means we are actively plotting a course where good health and a long life are not for all.

Nathan Cadena is chief operating officer at the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

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