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Crowding at Metro forces tough conversations

The “trailer park” that has popped up on the Auraria campus to handle overcrowding at Metropolitan State College of Denver is symbolic of some much bigger challenges confronting the urban campus.

Student numbers are growing, budgets are shrinking, and too many students aren’t succeeding the way they should. Because of these issues, administrators, faculty, alumni, students and staff are grappling with the very essence of Metro’s open door mission, and, in the process, raising questions about whether the institution could end up shutting some needy students out.

“There’s a push right now – some from (Metro President Stephen) Jordan, some from members of the board – to make us one of the out-front premier colleges in Colorado and the nation, which I think is a wonderful goal, as long as we don’t abandon the core mission we were created for,” student body President Andrew Bateman, 24, said in a recent interview.

For instance, Jordan and his team are re-examining a seemingly sacred component of Metro’s open admissions policy: accepting anyone aged 20 and older who has a high school diploma or GED. Jordan is pondering a “conditional acceptance” approach that would be based upon the student’s GPA during a designated trial period.

During a recent interview, Jordan said he finds himself asking the question: “Is there a better way to define what it means to be a modified open-admissions institution?”

“We are getting push-back from some faculty and staff,” Jordan acknowledged. “It gets to this issue of who we are. But are we providing (students) an opportunity to succeed or an opportunity to fail?”

The million-dollar question remains how the 44-year-old school, founded on the premise of advanced education for all, will whittle down its student body while still remaining the institution of choice for students and career-changers seeking an affordable bachelor’s degree in a dynamic and diverse urban setting.

Changes this year

Significant changes are already underway at the college, which educates the largest pool of in-state undergrads and boasts a record enrollment of nearly 23,000.

For the first time, Metro is imposing an enrollment cap effective next year through at least 2012, when a new student services building will be completed. Metro officials are also trying to deal with students who have been hovering at only 10 credits for too long and bump those who have failed to take required remedial courses to Community College of Denver.

Metro’s retention rate for first-time freshmen has lagged behind the national average, resulting in what administrators refer to as a constant and costly “churn” the school can no longer afford.

Some faculty members believe Jordan is headed in the right direction with the policy shifts.

“I am one of the president’s biggest supporters,” said communications professor David Kottenstette, as he showed off a creative paint job in his modular office. “He is on the right track about looking at capping how students get in.”

Faculty Senate President Lynn Kaersvang said she was comfortable with the changes after hearing Jordan and members of the board talk about them at a recent retreat.

“I don’t think the intention is to move away from our mission,” Kaersvang said. “My understanding is that the intention is that we still maintain an open enrollment policy but for students who are prepared to do college work. We don’t do anybody any favors if we let them in and we can’t do the job.”

Also this year Metro set a hard and fast application deadline and stuck to it. That meant some students who had their hearts set on Metro ended up at CCD after being told to “get their academic lives together and transfer back.” The school also instituted a $100 late registration fee.

“We really have begun to change the campus culture in regards to applying and registering,” said Judi Diaz Bonacquisti, associate vice president for enrollment services.

Registration holds have been placed on students with at least 90 credits if they haven’t completed required general studies courses. One internal review found 1,900 students with 90 or more credit hours who had not yet taken a required basic math class, which should have been taken freshman year.

Student body president Bateman said it’s not always the student’s fault if he or she can’t get in a required class.

“Students are sitting on a wait list to take classes they’re required to take,” Bateman said. “In the first week of classes, they’re scrambling to open more sections of these classes.”

In addition, Metro will no longer accept transfer students who have not completed remedial work.

“About 60 percent of our new students are transfers – mostly from community colleges,” Jordan said. “Most transfer without an associate’s degree. Many transfer without completing remediation. We will not accept any longer a student who has not completed remediation.”

“Under the old system, we were providing an opportunity to fail – knowing some students were likely to drop out and leave with debt, and saying, ‘That’s too bad.’ Now, we want to create opportunity. The student is making an investment in this. We have a responsibility to help share their success.”

Jordan is the first to blame Metro for failing to flag students who have not completed necessary remedial work within their first 30 credit hours.

“For whatever reason, we haven’t been as diligent in enforcing (certain rules),” Diaz Bonacquisti said. “We’ve done our students a disservice. If a student can’t read and write, how can we expect they’ll be successful?”

Some students think Metro could stand to be a bit more selective.

“Anybody can get in here,” said freshman Addie Wagner, 18, as she took a break between classes on a patch of grass near her modular classroom. “If you can’t get in anywhere, you apply to Metro. It is getting more popular. Probably cracking down would help – you can’t just let anybody in.”

Freshman Gabriel Martinez, 18, agreed.

“Either students aren’t ready or their parents are sending them,” he said. “I want to be here. I like school. I didn’t realize it ‘til I got out of high school.”

Tuition goes up

As a way to offset a dip in revenues due to fewer students in coming years and state budget cuts, Metro has hiked tuition 9 percent, the maximum allowable. As he pushes for tuition increases, Jordan is fond of pointing out that Metro State is among the cheapest colleges of its peers. Students with the greatest financial need can qualify for Pell grants if they’re enrolled full-time – especially now that the Obama administration has increased the amount of money in the program, Jordan said.

Student leader Bateman, though, remains wary of tuition hikes.

“They’re trying to raise tuition to the national average of our peers,” Bateman said. “That feels like a strange goal to have. We should be proud our tuition is below average. We should strive to be a school of excellence. To raise tuition and possibly force out students we were created to serve in pursuit of that goal is risky.”

A key underlying push of all these changes is an attempt to improve retention and completion rates. Five years ago, the retention rate for first-time freshmen at Metro was only 58 percent. Now, the number is up to 68 percent. Nationally, the rate is 75 percent.

President’s broader vision

The changes are also part of a broader vision that has been outlined by President Jordan at various town hall meetings. In the next couple years, Metro, for the first time, will offer masters programs in teacher education and social work – something that did not go over so well at the University of Colorado-Denver since it offers a competing teacher education on the same campus. The move needed legislative approval, because Metro is mandated to award only bachelor’s degrees.

Jordan also has his eye on having the school qualify as a Hispanic Serving Institution by 2015, which would allow it to tap additional federal funding. To qualify, a quarter of the school’s undergraduates must be Hispanic; and at least half of them must be low-income.

The school is hard at work on creating its own “neighborhood” on the Auraria campus, something CU-Denver and the CCD, which share facilities at Auraria, are also planning to do. Metro got out of the gate first and will build the first structure in its “neighborhood” – a Student Success building, paid for by student fees. Metro is also moving forward on Hotel Learning Center, which came about largely through fundraising.

“We need to create an identity for each institution,” Jordan said. “This creates an opportunity to build our own buildings. We have an 8-acre site where we can put six buildings – or 750,000 square foot of space over 20 years.”

Jordan is especially excited about the prospect of the $10 million Student Success center. The main floor will feature a one-stop-shop for students, who will be able to apply for admission, register for classes, pay bills, and apply for financial aid. The second floor will house the school’s First Year Success program, which will ultimately ensure small classes taught by tenured faculty for all incoming freshmen. The writing and tutoring centers will also be housed there.

And he continues to work on expanding the number of full-time faculty.

There’s a lot on the table, and a lot at stake at Metro State. To use a popular movie phrase Jordan is fond of quoting: “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Contact EdNews Colorado writer Julie Poppen at

Metro enrollment stats

Number of enrolled students: 22,904 students
Increase over last year: 5.5 percent
Student FTE increase over last year: 7.4 percent
Average credit-hour load: 11.12 up from 10.90 last year
Students of color: Increased 5.9 percent over last fall and now account for 24.8 percent of total enrollment.
Minority group with largest gains: Hispanic students, who make up 13.5 percent of students of color.
Top 10 majors: Management, 1,184; biology, 1,160; criminal justice and criminology, 1,058; psychology, 1,012; art, 996; accounting, 897; English, 760; marketing, 742; human performance and sport, 668; and history, 598
(Source: Metropolitan State College of Denver)

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