Community colleges have long attracted students wary of indebtedness to Uncle Sam or Sallie Mae. Being close to home means no need for room and board; part-time enrollment allows students to work and study; and a lack of fancy amenities like, say, a multimillion-dollar stadium means campus operational costs are low, keeping tuition and fees to a minimum. For learners, this can equate to a more prosperous future: According to the Brookings Institute, typical recipients of a two-year associate degree make $13,000 more at the peaks of their careers than those with just high school diplomas.

A pandemic-induced enrollment decline threatens that success. One year after the spring 2020 semester’s end, the Colorado Community College System (CCCS) had seen its student body shrink by 9.7 percent. The numbers of both Pell Grant (federal aid given to undergraduates with severe financial need) recipients and first-generation students fell by roughly 15 percent. At CCCS’ most racially diverse campus, Community College of Aurora (CCA), 16.4 percent withdrew.

To bring them back, the school launched the Return to Earn initiative, says CCA dean of students Reyna Anaya. Using $150,000 made up of an Anschutz Foundation grant and other donations, CCA hired a completion navigator to contact those who left 15 credits or fewer shy of an associate degree. The school offers those learners up to $1,000 for returning to the classroom; to receive the cash, students must have a C average or better by the end of the semester.

Similar models have worked in the past. CCA student Erick Rodriguez-Leyva, whose Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals status cut him off from many aid programs, received a grant called Fox Finishers in 2019. “I may not have been able to graduate without it,” says Rodriguez-Leyva, who ultimately majored in banking and finance at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

But Return to Earn funds are limited (the program aims to bring at least 75 students back in its first year), and federal help in the form of the American Families Plan—which would, in part, raise taxes on America’s wealthiest one percent to pay for two years of free community college for millions—had stalled at press time. While waiting, and hoping, for those funds, CCA staff will make sure students like Rodriguez-Leyva don’t quietly disappear by piloting a more robust withdrawal process this fall. “The idea is to make it harder to go,” Anaya says, “and easier to stay.” —Barbara Urzua

Cheat Sheet

Three big changes to expect when Colorado students return to school this month. —Angela Ufheil

1. School’s Out For…Longer
The Denver Public Schools (DPS) board voted to start classes on August 23, a week later than usual, so that students don’t have to sweat it out (55 DPS schools lack air conditioning) during the hottest time of the year. The vacation extension comes with a downside, though: Those learning days will be tacked on at the end of the academic year.

2. Halting An Educator Exodus
Low pay, resource scarcity, and COVID-19-related challenges led 40 percent of Colorado Education Association members to say they’re considering leaving the profession, which would deepen the state’s teacher shortage. A new Colorado law bolsters recruitment efforts by directing the Department of Education to publicize teacher preparation programs, but with wages unlikely to increase, experts say retaining talent might be difficult.

3. Remote Learning Redux
While most students will return to in-person school this month, Jeffco Public Schools and Boulder Valley School District will offer fully online courses for kids (and parents) who’d prefer to stay remote. Educators hired for the program won’t teach any IRL lessons—instead, the districts will train them on research-backed strategies for keeping virtual learners engaged.

This article was originally published in 5280 August 2021.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara is one of 5280's assistant editors and writes stories for 5280 and