The role of higher education in Colorado’s economic success


The Colorado Business Roundtable (CBR) “engages with elected leaders, business and nonprofit leaders, and other strategic allies to improve the business climate in our state by unapologetically amplifying the voice of business in all four corners of Colorado.” 

Debbie Brown is the president of the Colorado Business Roundtable.

On May 19, CBR held a live and virtual panel discussion with leading educators about how their institutions are actively contributing to Colorado’s economic success.

Opening the discussion,
Debbie Brown, CBR’s president, explained that in the summer and fall of 2020, CBR began working closely with Kristin Strohm and the Common Sense Institute on the Road to Recovery (ROR) Initiative, a vehicle “to formulate and influence public policy through collaboration and research in response to the pandemic’s economic realities.” The group of “thought leaders from diverse industry backgrounds” who led the ROR Initiative identified “three pillars for a sustainable, growing, and global economy that will position Colorado for long-term economic success.” Those pillars are 1) prioritize a competitiveness agenda; 2) reimagine Colorado’s workforce; and 3) invest in a future-forward infrastructure.

Formerly the Secretary of Education for the State of New Mexico, Hanna Skandera assumed the position of CEO of the Daniels Fund in December 2020.

Before the educators spoke, the participants heard from CBR board member Lloyd Lewis, who is in his 16th year as president of ARC Thrift Stores. That company alone has contributed $100 million to advocacy for people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and many other intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Lewis told the crowd, “We (ARC) were designated as an essential business by the state last year. Our company has been recognized as adding $300 billion to the economy. We help people with IDD, serving 10,000 families.” 

Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker was CSU Global’s first president. She currently serves as chief educational innovation officer for the CSU System.

ARC helps people find jobs and get services. They also advocate for humane treatment and work to get people with IDD de-institutionalized. Lewis shared his personal story. “My son Kennedy is 17 with Down Syndrome. That’s why I joined ARC. Eighty percent of people with IDD are unemployed. There are over 50,000 individuals waiting to make a difference in your organization. Help us untap the great talent of those with IDD. ARC is today announcing a $10,000 scholarship to support someone with IDD in pursuing their future.”

Lloyd Lewis is in his 16th year as president and CEO of Arc Thrift Stores, which employs 1,400 people in 31 retail stores in Colorado.

Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker, chief educational innovation officer for the CSU System and a CBR board member, talked about the future. She told the group that one out of every three workers will be displaced through technology (e.g., those who answer phones, do scheduling), resulting in a 17 to 20 percent decrease in office workers.  She added, “We’ll have 30% more health care workers and 36% more workers at higher-waged jobs (who will need) technology abilities, the social and emotional capabilities, and critical thinking and creativity…That is what our education entities will be preparing for.”

Dr. Bernard McCune leads DPS initiatives in concurrent enrollment, counseling and student engagement, career education through Emily Griffith College, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate programs.

Recently appointed CEO of the Daniels Fund, Hanna Skandera, asked the educator panelists, “How do we break down paths to opportunities and reimagine choices so that no one is left behind?”

Dr. Pamela Toney president of CSU Global, emphasized her school’s focus on giving people college credit for life experience, such as military service. Having graduated over 20,000 students in ten years, CSU Global is “data-focused, always looking for ways to improve our programs. Many of our students get funding from their employers and COVID interrupted that. We hope to see those tuition reimbursement programs that got cut during COVID…come back.”

Dave Davia is executive vice-president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association and co-chaired the Colorado Road to Recovery Initiative.

Asked how DPS identified students’ diverse needs, Dr. Bernard McKune, DPS senior executive director for career and college success, said, “It is really important to work with each individual student using ICAP (Individual Career Academic Plan) beginning in middle school to identify their career passions. This helps them understand their interests and provides a way to have meaningful opportunities for career exploration…. All our students will have a career. Some will require college, but all require rigorous training. Internships and concurrent enrollment are important parts. We have to learn from you, business, the competencies our students need to succeed.”

Dr. Joe Garcia is chancellor of the Colorado Community College System and former lieutenant governor of Colorado.

Dr. Joe Garcia, chancellor at the Colorado Community Colleges System, said, “I believe a good all-around liberal arts education is a good tool for everyone.” While he agrees that the ICAP is important, “I would argue it’s not as good a tool as we would want it to be, because people change their mind (as they get older),” said Garcia. 

On the subject of the cost of higher education, Garcia shared, “Why is higher education so expensive? Because full-pay students have lots of options. Most students pay more attention to amenities (climbing walls and dining halls and dormitories) when they visit campuses.” He said that upper middle-class parents will “pay whatever it takes” if their student gets into a high-priced school like Stanford or Harvard or CU. Said Garcia, “We can provide a good education at community college, but parents who can afford more expensive schools for their kids, use those.”

Mark Kennedy has been president of the University of Colorado System, including campuses in Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, and the Anschutz School of Medicine in Aurora since 2019.

Asked by Skandera, “When you think about your students and what is possible, where do you think we’re going with technology in education?,” CU President Mark Kennedy said, “It was accelerating very fast before the pandemic. The pandemic made it move even faster. …We don’t produce enough people in cybersecurity and analytics. We need to have them start thinking about that in middle school. We have the world’s best campuses, but campus isn’t for everyone, so digital will also allow us to extend a CU education to everyone, including rural students.” He added, “We make sure our online offerings are accessible to those with disabilities.”

When Skandera said to Dave Davila, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association, “You might argue that higher education isn’t the answer for everyone,” Davila responded, “I’m the person who doesn’t belong on this panel. We operate five campuses with 252 classroom hours and about 1,800 learning on-the-job hours.” He offered the comparison that, “27% of those (who went to) college work in the field they studied. In our world, it’s 97%,” adding, “This pandemic taught us that construction workers were essential workers.” 

Dr. Pamela Toney is president of CSU Global, a fully online university, which serves students in every U.S. state, every Colorado county, and over 60 countries.

Davila explained, “Our proposition has been lost to parents since the 1980s. Most high schools don’t have the shop-type classes that they used to. I think our members have something unique to offer to parents. We can start paying you on day one at no cost other than $1,000 for book fees and after four to five years, you come out with a profession that can’t be outsourced or offshored….Our students have collaborative, problem solving, and communication skills. Most start with about a $70,000 job.  We’re pretty proud of the fact that our association has been around for 150 years.” He offered this advice for young people: “Consider a path in the trades. I went to CU for six months. My focus was not on my studies. (That drew laughter across the room and probably in many homes.) Higher education isn’t for everybody. We employ 180,000 people today and need 50,000 more in the next five years.”

Garcia agreed, adding, “High school isn’t enough anymore, but that doesn’t mean you have to go to college. The trades are a real option.”

Toney added, “At CSU Global we have always been imagining tomorrow’s workforce. As we all know, the path you start on when you’re 18 is not the path you are on in your 40s and 50s. CSU Global helps people move to the next level in the education they need for where we want to go. We focus on our partnerships with industry to make sure we are giving people the skills they need… Our average student is 35 and has a family. They are focused on where they want to go next in their career. We know that education is a lifelong journey. We have the ability to develop different programs and short-term training to help our students and the industries they work in.”

Deloitte, ARC Thrift Stores, and Common Sense Institute sponsored the CBR program.