Colorado’s chief educational equity officer started the new position last August. He’s tried to elevate the conversation about how colleges and universities can serve students of color. Photo: Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Roberto Montoya remembers the culture shock from when he first stepped onto a Colorado college campus.

Montoya went from an Albuquerque high school with a primarily Latino population to Colorado Mesa University, which was almost entirely white. The initial surprise he felt seeing so few students and professors who looked like him eventually made him want to create a space for other students of color.

A year ago, Montoya’s journey to push for more diverse campuses brought him to work for the state — as the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s first-ever chief educational equity officer.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Montoya said he wants to elevate and support college and university work helping students of color, as well as those that are first generation and low income. He also wants to stimulate the conversation about what those students need to be successful.

“There are so many folks who care deeply about and understand — not just recognize — the centuries of inequities and are committed to trying to undo them,” he said. “Yet they feel like they don’t necessarily always have what they need in order to do that.”

In 2021, Colorado lawmakers included in the $34.1 billion state budget funding for an equity officer. The higher education department hired Montoya in August that year from Race Forward, a national organization seeking to advance racial justice.

Montoya previously worked as a college instructor, researcher, and adviser to K-12 schools in educational equity. He started his career at Colorado Mesa University as a diversity recruiter after serving as the school’s first Latino student body president.

When he began as the state’s equity officer, the numbers showed large gaps separating white students and students of color. Clearly, the state had to step up its work evening out opportunities.

“That is not to say that there was not good work that was happening,” he said. “But was it happening at scale?”

Montoya said 24 of 31 colleges in Colorado have a senior equity officer.

But a small group can’t do all the work, he said. He wants the work those equity officers do to become part of the culture of every school and reach every employee. If the whole school works to help clear the roadblocks, he said, then it makes it easier for students of color to enroll and graduate. 

Montoya added budget constraints shouldn’t stop the work. State funding for higher education has improved in recent years, but it’s still well below that of most states. 

Instead, he said the state and schools can find ways to do the work under tight budgets. He said they can push for more partnerships that don’t cost money to get the work done, including working with foundations and community organizations.

He’s asking: “How do we partner with the institutions and find those very creative and innovative ways to do the work?”

So what are those challenges that Montoya sees students facing?

They can include not enough food, or needing to take care of a parent, or working late hours. Students don’t see enough role models among people in power, and they don’t get enough support to take care of their mental and physical health.

He doesn’t want to just make schools aware of these problems; he wants to tackle them head on. 

He has limitations. The state’s higher education office cannot demand colleges and universities do anything, he said. But he does hope by pushing the issue of equity, his office can bring greater awareness to what students need. 

So far, there’s some progress. He succeeded in advocating to pass a bill that will help students with disabilities, he said. And the state is planning a second symposium to bring together college leaders to talk about how to tackle problems. “We all must work together,” he said.

“We’re not an authoritative body,” Montoya said. “This work is to lift up and to serve as that amplifier and conduit to the promising practices.”

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.