CSU’s “non-degree” Denver campus aims to attract the 37% of kids who don’t go to college

Colorado State University Chancellor Tony Frank is fixated on the 56,505 babies born around the state in 1997. One-third of them graduated by age 25 from college, data analyzed by CSU administrators shows, and 37% never enrolled.

Frank and CSU, along with other schools nationwide, are targeting that segment — toward the longstanding U.S. goal of making higher education widely available. A $200 million “non-degree campus” that CSU is building at the National Western Center in north Denver will be devoted to attracting future students, Frank said.

Campus leaders plan to invite every teenager in junior high along on Colorado’s Front Range twice a year to visit and observe researchers in CSU’s new, shiny glass buildings, which are scheduled to open next year.

“We want to pound home the message that there is a pathway to college,” he said in an interview. “In America, we do still agree that, if you have the talent and the motivation, you should be able to make the most of it. But there are barriers. And we are trying to go way back — to the grade school level — and embed experiential learning and implant the idea at an early age that college is really possible.”

Eight miles away in the East Colfax neighborhood, ambitious low-income teens are interested — but say affordability is a major obstacle.

“Man, that sounds so good,” said Pru Soe, 19, a member of the Street Fraternity collective of refugees. He was born at a camp in Thailand after his parents fled civil war in Myanmar and long has talked of applying to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Universities increasingly want to attract students like Soe and the tens of thousands of others likely to skip higher education — especially as the long-term trend of declining enrollment threatens schools’ revenues.

Over the past year, total U.S. college enrollment decreased by 3.5% to 16.9 million. Since 2010, enrollment has been declining at an average rate of 1.6% a year, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that conducts research for colleges and universities. Even in Colorado where the population is exploding, the annual number of students enrolled in colleges has decreased since 2010 by 2.7%.

Higher education officials blame the declines on an aging population and other factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and doubts about the value of higher education.

Drawing students more broadly from all segments of U.S. society could help boost enrollment, and this is compelling CSU and other schools to focus more on hard-to-reach communities — even where family incomes are insufficient to afford college. Growing numbers of potential students live in urban areas nationwide where foreign-born residents make up a significant portion of the  population (15% in Denver and 19% in adjacent Aurora), adding language and cultural challenges.

Community colleges traditionally catered to low-income families — and still do. Colorado has 13 of these, with 40 locations, serving 137,000 students who receive technical training tied to workforce needs as well as science and humanities courses that can count toward four-year degrees.

High school graduate Onaing Sar, 19, a refugee from Myanmar whose family was resettled in Denver, will start next fall at the Community College of Aurora. She excelled as an A student at the New America School — and, with help from a teacher and a counselor, filled out applications for schools and federal financial aid.

She’ll walk 15 minutes from her family’s two-room apartment to classrooms, she said, planning to concentrate on math, business and science.

“My mother always told me, since we came to the United States: ‘Go to school.’ She said the most important thing is to go to school. ‘You go to school, better for you,’” Sar said. “She wanted to go to school, too, but she didn’t have a chance. So I will go for her.”

CSU officials now are talking more aggressively about seeking potential students like Sar.

Beyond the economic benefits of ample enrollment, CSU is a land-grant school with a statutory mission of providing agriculture and industrial education to a broad population. Higher education served mostly elites until U.S. leaders in the 1860s set up those schools to bolster democracy and development. Today, the United States ranks among the top 10 nations in the portion of residents (about 46%) who’ve received post-secondary degrees.

The three-building CSU campus in north Denver — just east of Interstate 25 and north of Interstate 70 in Globeville — gives a foothold for expansion. Research facilities here add to the lab opportunities on CSU’s main Fort Collins campus with a focus on water supplies, food production and veterinary sciences. Denver Water is relocating its municipal water-quality testing lab to the campus.

The facilities will be open — at no cost — for public observation. Large windows enclosing the various labs are designed to engage would-be students who can watch veterinarians conducting surgeries on cats and dogs. In a mock exam room, elementary and high school visitors can inspect X-ray images, try to diagnose ailments and play the role of surgeons themselves. They’ll be able to see injured horses receiving acupuncture treatment and race horses training on underwater treadmills.

CSU will spend $10 million a year running this new campus, Frank said, including elementary school partnerships and recruiting activities.

He acknowledged huge financial obstacles in trying to enroll more students whose families cannot easily afford college. CSU relies on private support, tuition, room and board to cover 90% of its budget due to relatively paltry state funding. Low-income students can receive federal and other financial aid based on a sliding scale depending on family income, Frank said, and grants are available to help cover costs of room and board.

“I want all of them to attend college,” Frank said. “We’re going to need all of them. It’s not as if our generation has left the next generation with an easy set of problems to solve.”

But recruiters will be hard-pressed if Street Frat members and other teens in east Denver are an indication.

Most face pressure to earn money to help support their families. “Mistrust of higher education” deters others, said Street Frat director Yoal Ghebremeskel, 36, whose team runs this collective from the basement of a Disabled American Veterans building. “Like, ‘I go to college for four years. Then what?’”

Yet many are motivated. “I’m thinking of college, looking for scholarships,” said Daniel Numbi, 14, who was born in Congo before his family fled war to Uganda. “But I have a B in math.”

CSU and other universities trying to attract potential students “will have to be consistent” in their efforts, Ghebremeskel said. And Kamal Arar, 34, who helps out at Street Frat, recommended reaching teens when they’re in middle school “because then they will listen.”

Among the scores of teens who since 2013 have hung out, horsed around, trained, studied and shared meals at the Street Frat, Soe stands out as one of the smartest, with a knack for asking “foundational questions,” program coordinator Levon Lyles said. But he’s been in trouble, leading to multiple court hearings that have delayed his studies at South High.

Soe claims he’s “clean” now, wiser and determined.

“I want to get everything right. I don’t want to be a criminal,” he said on a recent evening. “Some guys here say after high school you’re done, that you don’t have to go to college to be successful. My mother said: ‘If you go to college, you will be more successful.’”

His friend Micro Win, 22, said he tried college in Montana and found it “too tough,” partly because “they make fun of your accent sometimes.” He turned to a Job Corps program and recently began a night shift job at Home Depot earning $18 an hour with health benefits.

Rather than wait for outside financial help, South High graduate John Oo, 21, concluded he and his family must help themselves before higher education is possible.

For years, Oo endured pressure as the eldest son to become a doctor. He began biology and other studies at the University of Colorado in Denver, but realized his family could not afford the bills.

He persuaded his parents to let him delay his studies after completing a two-year degree and obtaining a nursing certificate. While working $25-an-hour night nursing shifts, following a day shift at Chick-fil-A, he said, he saved enough to purchase a kiosk in the Aurora Town Center Mall – called Ohlala Sweets – where he now works “to build an established customer base” and create a family financial engine.

He’s training his 17-year-old sister on weekends to help run the business. Soon, Oo said, he’ll apply for college again. His goal: become a doctor and provide medical help for people in the United States and around the world who cannot afford it.

“”If somebody gives me the opportunity to attend school, I’ll gladly take it. Financial need has been the biggest barrier for me,” Oo said. “And I don’t want to be in debt because that’s too much of a burden for me and my family.”

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