Luis Hernandez rides the train to college classes after putting in a full shift at an ink and toner cartridge company in Denver. Photo by Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat.

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.

A Story of Contrasts

There’s a story of contrasts that runs through the center of Colorado’s record on higher education: The state has one of the most highly educated populations — it’s particularly good at importing college graduates. But its record on getting many of the residents who grew up there into, and through, college is much worse.

Jason Gonzales, our reporter with Chalkbeat there, set out to examine one particularly huge gap. Only a quarter of Hispanic residents have a college credential. That compares with 61 percent of all Coloradans. 

Hispanic men, in particular, struggle to graduate. Just two out of five who enroll at Colorado’s public four-year colleges earn a degree. At the state’s community colleges, less than one in three graduates.

Those gaps, Jason writes, have implications for the state’s prosperity. They also exact a heavy toll on the finances of families in a state where one in five identifies as Hispanic. 

Diverging Paths

Families like the Hernandezes. Two brothers, Jimy and Luis, shared their stories with Jason. Both of them wanted to go to college. Only one did.

From the time they were young, they understood that college was an expectation.

“My dream has always been for my children to have a better life than what I had,” their mother, Mariela Hernandez, who immigrated from Mexico, told Jason. “I want them to grow up and do what they love — not to have to work as much as I do.”

So what made a difference? A lot of it boiled down to access to practical advice.

Left on his own, Jimy didn’t know how to follow up on his teachers’ and counselors’ suggestions that he apply for college. He felt counselors helped out honor students more. He never completed the FAFSA. He didn’t know why it was important. 

He also didn’t know that community colleges offer many of the programs he was interested in at a fraction of the cost of for-profit institutions.

His younger brother, Luis, meanwhile, got connected with a program offered by the Metropolitan State University of Denver that guided him in where to go, how to pay for it, how to pick classes, and how to register for them.

The disparate journeys, even within the same family, demonstrate how deeply uneven access remains, Jason says, how not everyone can get to college without a bit of fortunate circumstances. 

“The two hope that their story can help others that look like them,” Jason says, “including their two younger brothers, fulfill their college dreams.”

Long Odds

But even now, the odds remain stacked against a student like Luis. That’s the subject of Jason’s next story: The wide gaps in graduation rates and what more Colorado universities can be doing to help more Hispanic men across the finish line. 

MSU Denver, where Luis goes, has the lowest graduation rate among Colorado’s four-year public colleges for Hispanic men. Before the pandemic, just one in five Hispanic men finished with a bachelor’s degree there.

“I have so much pressure being the first one to go to college,” Luis told Jason. “But my cousins and siblings look up to me and see what I am doing. I want to be an inspiration for them.”

+ Read the story of Jimy and Luis.

++ Sign up for Jason’s Chalkbeat newsletter about college-going in Colorado.

Get Our New Newsletters

College Inside, a biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prison, debuted this week. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West, the newsletter will explore how these programs are delivered and who gets access to them, as well as the challenges that formerly incarcerated students face in navigating both higher ed and the workforce. Sign up here to get College Inside in your inbox.

“It’s an exciting time to be starting this venture,” Charlotte wrote. “Prison education is at a critical juncture, with the lasting impacts of the pandemic and the restoration of Pell Grants for people in prison on the horizon.”

Next week, we’ll be starting up two more newsletters from our national reporting team:

+ Here’s where to sign up for any, or all, of our Open Campus newsletters.

Thanks for Your Support

Here’s a friendly reminder that our reporting would not be possible without the support of our readers and funders. From now through Dec. 31, you can double your one-time gift, up to $1,000 (or match a new monthly gift 12 times).

These gifts will have a substantial impact on our organization and will help sustain our journalism through 2022 and beyond.

Will you support independent journalism that matters to you? Here’s where to give.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Work Shift: What value do workers get with manufacturing credentials? They are more likely to end up in the industry and to see their wages increase—but lots of questions remain.

In Mississippi: These Mississippi students camped out to get a sign on ESPN ‘College GameDay’ about… financial aid? Two seniors at the University of Mississippi wanted to raise awareness about a new policy that could affect tens of thousands of college students in the state.

In El Paso: University of Texas at El Paso has most Hispanic tenured faculty among research universities nationally. Only 6 percent of tenured faculty in the United States are Hispanic. At UTEP, 30 percent are. Here’s why that matters.

In latitude(s): A ‘new reality’ for study abroad. Covid might not continue to be a crisis for study abroad on par with the last couple of years, but it will still affect students’ overseas experiences.

In Next: As California goes, so goes the nation? Colleges that made test optional a “temporary policy” during the pandemic are weighing whether to extend it yet again for a third year of applicants. Last month, the University of California decided to close the book on testing.

Keep in Touch

Please share. Forward this newsletter to colleagues, family, and friends who might be interested. They can sign up for their own copy here.

Run a newsroom and want to improve your coverage of higher ed? Let’s talk.

Got a story tip or a question? Please send it along.

Our Local Network locations: California | Cleveland | Colorado | El Paso | Mississippi | Pittsburgh | Santa Cruz

Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus