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Tony Frank: When it comes to higher-education equity, common ground is closer than we might think

Maybe we can bypass the equity v. equality arguments. Maybe we can focus not on what’s said about this issue, but what’s actually done about it.

In discussions about public funding and policy, language often gets in the way of finding common ground.  That’s particularly true in discussions around educational equity and equality – people with the same goals can wind up talking around each other and miss the common ground that serves as the best foundation for actual progress.

In education, outcomes matter.  And the data on educational outcomes are unambiguous: Wages, income, employment, health, and things as basic as life satisfaction track with educational attainment.  

And every Coloradan I know hopes that every child born in our state will be an engaged citizen and have a productive career.  That’s common ground we can start from. 

Tony Frank (Photo by Ellen Jaskol).

But consider: Around 62,000 children will be born in Colorado this year.  And statistics tell us that, unless things change, nearly 7,000 of these children won’t graduate from high school; another 16,000 won’t be academically prepared for college. 

A similar number – around 15,000 – will attend college but fail to graduate, and around 4,000 will decide to pass on college despite being academically prepared.  The largest cohort, around 20,000 young men and women, will graduate from college. 

Are we proud that the most likely outcome is to be a college graduate, with all the opportunities that success unlocks?  Or are we concerned that the new Coloradan born in the next 10 minutes only has a 1-in-3 chance of being a part of that success story?  

Are we even more concerned when we know that these outcomes are unequal: that a baby of color has less than half the chance to succeed?  I suspect we have common ground here as well.

What to do about it?  Do this thought experiment – let’s imagine the state we all want: 

  • As America emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and we restart and rebuild our economy, what if we lived in a state with a high-efficiency educational system, one that allowed elected officials to invest in confidence, knowing that the funds they invest in higher education today will shift those percentages and produce more graduates? 
  • What if we could feel confidence that this was a long-term, revenue-enhancing investment because an educated workforce attracts jobs, industries, and a strong tax base – and it’s well-documented that the higher employment and higher wages college graduates earn allow them to pay back the state’s investment in their education in less than four years?
  • What if we lived in a state where just under half of public higher-education graduates left college debt free, and those who did borrow graduated with debt levels of about $25,000, under the national average, with low single-digit default rates and at a level that hasn’t risen as much as wages over the past quarter century? 
  • And what if that state knew how to drive down equity gaps in graduation rates?  What if we understood that investments in advising and support services were not unequal treatment, but instead were ways to assure young people of amazing talent, who have arrived at the doorstep of college with unequal preparation, have a fair chance to make the most of their God-given talents and, in doing so, create the next chapter of the American success story – one that will simultaneously fuel middle class prosperity and an engaged citizenry? 

All of this sounds like it could be common ground.  And this isn’t a state we have to imagine. 

This “thought experiment” is the reality in Colorado.  We have the most efficient higher education system in the nation, producing a degree or credential for fewer taxpayer dollars than any other state. Nearly half our graduates from public campuses leave college with a diploma in hand and zero debt. 

And we already know what works to drive down equity gaps in graduation rates – these are not secrets to be discovered; they’re simply investments we could make that carry ridiculously strong social and economic ROI potential.

We know what works. If these investments were to be made, we would move the needle on this issue for students at all Colorado institutions and achieve the change that we all can agree is needed.

So maybe we can bypass the equity v. equality arguments. Maybe we can focus on common ground.  Maybe we can focus not on what’s said about this issue, but what’s actually done about it.  

Lincoln, who launched our nation’s first equity-based higher education system when he created land-grant colleges, famously said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow.  The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”  

Our collective character is defined by what we do.  And the next generation is watching.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education will host its first Educational Equity Day of Dialogue on Monday, with higher education leaders from across Colorado.


Tony Frank is the chancellor of the Colorado State University System and is a former president of CSU’s Fort Collins campus.


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