By Andrew Smalley
As part of the 15th annual Legislative Institute on Higher Education, legislators and staff toured Metropolitan State University in Denver to learn about the strategies used by the school and potential lessons to apply across the country.
Located in the city's downtown area, MSU is an open-access, public institution that offers the lowest tuition among the state’s major colleges. MSU had nearly 20,000 undergraduate students in 2017 and offered 85 bachelor’s degrees and five master’s programs.
University President Janine Davidson said one of the key’s to MSU’s success is to focus “like a laser on the middle class and making education affordable and accessible.”
MSU’s median student age is 26 and nearly half of all enrolees are first-generation college students. These challenges mean some students at MSU might take longer than four years to graduate.
But Davidson advocated that job placement rates are more valuable than four-year graduation rates. She also discussed her efforts to remove year-based nomenclature such as “freshman, sophomore, junior and senior” since these terms can create stigma and rigid mindsets.
Instead, Davidson sees MSU as model for innovation and creating connections within the community. MSU has developed partnerships with local employers to create specialized apprenticeship programs, including an advanced manufacturing sciences co-op partnership with Lockheed Martin that lets students work a reduced schedule to balance their coursework.
Rubi Solis participated in the Lockheed Martin co-op program while at MSU and now works as a system integration test engineer at the company. Solis said affordability and the fact that her credits from community college transferred easily were among the main reasons she chose the school.
Davidson said one of her top priorities was to invest in advising programs to help keep students on track. “We want advisors who focus more on what you will do and how you are doing, not just the classes that you would take,” she said. “Intervening early is very important.”
MSU has also made its Roadways Peer Mentoring program a key part of its approach. The program, which pays student mentors to provide advice and support, is designed to help new students from admission to alumni. MSU plans to expand the Roadways program in the future to serve more students.
Current MSU students Angel Cecena and Mason Jenkins serve as peer mentors. Cecena credits the supportive environment at MSU for his and other’s success. “Professors are really here to help students," Cecena said. "My professors understand what I am going through and the challenges I face.” Jenkins said he knew MSU was the campus for him when he saw the diversity and range of ages of students on campus.
Justin Darnall, a Marine Corps veteran who serves as student government president, attended other schools before settling in at MSU. Darnall understands the challenges faced by veterans as they return home and seek postsecondary education.
At MSU, he works at the Veteran Education Benefits Office helping other veterans navigate the financial aid process. In 2017, he was named Student of the Year by the American Council on Education.
Darnall and other MSU officials also helped with efforts in Colorado to award academic credit for prior learning from military and education training. These efforts culminated in Colorado HB 17-004, which was signed by the governor in June 2017.
“At Metro, it was as easy as it should be to get credit for what I already know how to do,” Darnall said.
“The transfer of credits is one of the biggest challenges in higher education,” Davidson said. “We have made some blanket agreements with the community colleges in the area. We are trying to streamline the process as much as possible.”
Erika Wyckoff , the student government associate vice president, is creating her own major through MSU’s Individualized Degree program. As a working parent, she spoke of the support for her schedule and understanding of faculty as keys to her success at MSU.
MSU is also home to several non-degree certificate programs.
One unique example is the Beer Industry Program, which aims to take advantage of the significant growth of craft breweries in Colorado by providing both degrees and certificates in Brewery and Pub Operations in partnership with the on-campus Tivoli Brewing Company.
Legislators and staff were given a tour of the advanced facilities and labs used in the brewing program by associate professor Ethan Tsai. This tour revealed the advanced chemistry and laboratory standards needed for effective brewing operations. MSU hopes graduates from this program will be able to apply their skills locally to an industry that generated more than $3 billion in economic impact in 2016.
Andrew Smalley is an intern in NCSL’s Education Program.