Colorado State University (CSU) Pueblo has established four University Track Centers (UTCs) in two school districts in Pueblo County to promote a postsecondary culture where students are supported through the application process so they can move on to higher education. The centers seek to uplift and inspire communities with underserved populations that may not believe they are capable of pursuing a degree and make that hope a reality. State education department data showed that in 2020 alone, high school graduates from Districts 60 and 70 were not attending colleges or universities at a rate of around 50% each.
Conversations with community members and educators revealed to CSU Pueblo the need to expand and cultivate a college-going culture in this county, one of the areas it serves, but regardless of where the students would attend college or university. Through partnerships it built with the school districts and their communities as well as charitable foundations, the university has been establishing UTCs and hiring dedicated staff to usher students through the application and financial aid process since 2018. These centers largely targeted communities of color in which families and their first-generation students, particularly Latinx people, needed support in understanding the rather complicated and often intimidating admissions process. The four centers—with a fifth one planned for Harrison School District Two in Colorado Springs to open in 2022—can be found in high schools and in the community. There, UTC coordinators promote postsecondary educational experiences and opportunities, including field trips to local universities and businesses and mock interviews. In addition, students who utilize the centers are eligible for scholarships, making higher education more affordable. The UTCs support the university’s purposeful mission of being the people’s university by 2028, a goal of the university’s Vision 2028 strategic plan.
The partnerships CSU Pueblo facilitated with the Pueblo County school districts, communities, and donors created centers that identified and supported the actual needs of the families and students. Because of the large Latinx population in this area of southern Colorado, Spanish-language materials were provided at the UTCs, and the newest center is staffed by a bilingual coordinator. The UTC coordinators also work alongside high school guidance staff who have identified students who would benefit from the center’s resource and coordinator’s guidance but may not be inclined to pursue them. The dedicated staff assist students with applications, Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), essays, and scholarship searches for any four-year institution. As a further incentive, special CSU Pueblo scholarship funds are made available to every student from Pueblo County who utilizes UTC services. In addition to these professional coordinators, CSU Pueblo students serve as peer mentors, assisting students with their college journey and helping to demystify the process for families. The centers also provide high school teachers with streamlined access to college faculty who can serve as presenters and experts in their classrooms and enhance their curriculum.
Funding for the first four centers was provided by institutional and system funds; The Daniels Fund, a private charitable foundation, donated money to pay for the latest and fifth center, which is expected to open in fall 2022.
“I usually spend most of my time in here talking about FAFSA or college applications ‘cause I am pretty much blind to the whole process of this. I am the first one to attend college in my family, so it’s kind of a first step for us. … The [University] Track Center has helped me because now I have a for sure first path and I know where I’m gonna go.”
Kelia Bond, student, Pueblo West High School Class of 2019
To determine the effectiveness of the UTCs, university officials rely on several factors. Among them are the numbers of students and families served, workshops and sessions offered, college applications completed, and FAFSAs submitted. Lagging indicators are also being measured, including annual changes in enrollment from this region of Pueblo County at CSU Pueblo, annual data from the state related to the percentage of local students enrolled in college after high school graduation, and first-generation and minority enrollment numbers overall and at CSU Pueblo. As such, CSU Pueblo learned that during the 2020–2021 school year, more than 315 high school students received help from the UTCs despite the pandemic. While recent data are being reviewed, one of the most rural schools in one district saw a notable growth in FAFSA completion between the 2018–2019 and 2020–2021 school years, with the percentage climbing from 56.7% to 73.3%. That significant shift in actions that directly impact access and affordability are exactly what the UTCs were designed to support. In addition, the fall 2021 and 2022 semesters to date have seen an increase in applications to CSU Pueblo from the area of Pueblo County where the four original UTCs are located. The above indicators help the university determine the UTCs’ effectiveness, success of its partnerships, and its focus on building a college-going culture within the communities.
Because the UTC initiative was launched prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it suffered some setbacks. The project envisioned as multiyear and long term had annual goals of increasing FAFSA completion and application rates in local schools, providing direct service to large numbers of students in the target schools, and providing workshops and other special events to families. The COVID realities and the need to shift to fully virtual services for almost two years impacted the university reaching these goals. However, CSU Pueblo did manage to maintain activities in the four UTCs during that time with a fifth one on the way, and there remains a strong ongoing effort to expand college access in southern Colorado.
The ultimate success of the UTCs and the growing the number of high school graduates choosing to go to college are expected to have a significant economic and educational impact on the local community. As the population becomes more educated, research has shown that personal and community wealth increases, economic development flows, and societal costs related to incarceration and social services decline. For CSU Pueblo, this sort of community impact will likely result in increased institutional enrollment. That combination of community and institutional enhancement is part of a larger institutional strategy for service and sustainable growth. In future years, the university aims to see the local districts’ college-going rates improve significantly to draw even with or surpass the state average.
Higher education institutions interested in promoting postsecondary values in the local school districts they serve should research and understand the current college-going culture and craft their interventions and programs in alignment with best practices related to that culture. In the initial stages, CSU Pueblo made that approach the cornerstone of its planning. From creating the UTC spaces to writing the job descriptions for the coordinators, the university sought to support the work done by the school districts and expand the impact of postsecondary services for high school students within the community.
The UTC gave me the opportunity to find myself as a person and as a future university student.
Alice Park, student, East High School Class of 2019