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Colorado college-going rates continue to decline but at a slower rate

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DENVER, CO – May 1, 2023: The college-going rate for Colorado’s high school graduating class of 2021 decreased slightly according to “Pathways to Prosperity: Postsecondary Access and Success for Colorado’s High School Graduates,” released today by the Colorado Department of Higher Education. For 2021 grads, the college-going rate was 49.9%, a small decrease after a more than 5% drop from 2019 mostly due to the effects of the pandemic. The state’s rate is more than 10% lower than the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which indicated a national college-going rate of 61.8% in 2021. However, the percentage of students who earn a college credential while in high school is higher than it was 10 years ago. According to the report, when factoring in students who earned a credential through concurrent and dual enrollment programs, the total postsecondary success rate increased to 51%.
“Just under 50% of high school graduates attended an institution of higher education in the fall after graduation,” said Dr. Angie Paccione, executive director of CDHE. “The concern adds to the weight of the upcoming enrollment cliff - projections of a nationwide drop in enrollment of the college-age population beginning in 2025. Further, the cliff has resulted in colleges outside of Colorado increasingly recruiting our state’s graduates – 29% of high school graduates enrolled in a college or university in another state – a 4% increase and the highest rate ever. We must work harder to promote the value of higher education and what our colleges and universities in Colorado have to offer.”
This year, the report expands upon data on high school graduates from rural areas who enrolled in college to include retention and completion rates as well. The college-going rate for these students is 47.5%, which is lower than the state average but a 2% increase from 2020. While the retention rate (enrolled in the fall term after their first year of college) for students from rural areas (74.5%) is lower than the state average (77.1%), the four-year rate for earning a certificate or degree (41.7%) is slightly higher than the state average (38.8%).
The data suggests that equity gaps continue in higher education for students of color, low-income students, and students from rural communities. These equity gaps and college-going rates are most salient and persistent for students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latinx, and Hawaiian or Pacific Island. Continued and more focused support guiding all students, particularly underrepresented student populations, into a college-going pathway is critical in meeting the state's workforce demands.
Outcomes for Lower-Income Coloradans
Like the racial and ethnic gaps, enrollment discrepancies persist among students from lower-income families. Students who received free or reduced lunch (FRL) in high school enrolled in college at disproportionately lower rates than their counterparts (35.2% vs. 54.8%). Over 12% more students who did not qualify for FRL completed 30 course credit hours or more in their first year of college than students who qualified for FRL. This difference is significant, as enrolling in more credits can help contain costs for students and decrease the time to graduation.

Asian students (63.9%) are more likely to enroll in postsecondary education than FRL-eligible students from all other race/ethnicity groups. Low-income Black or African American students (44.3%) are the next most likely to enroll students eligible for FRL.
Student Success Measures
Career and technical education continue to see strong participation rates in high school. Seventy-two percent of 2021 high school graduates enrolled in CTE courses during high school, and 44% completed a CTE program. Colorado’s CTE programs deliver proven pathways to career success through rigorous, career-connect courses and programs.
A total of 2,172 graduates in 2021 completed a postsecondary credential in high school, representing 3.5% of the graduating class. Nearly all racial and ethnic groups increased in dual enrollment participation. Research shows those who participate in programs that offer college courses in high school are more likely to enroll in postsecondary education.
The number of high school students graduating with a postsecondary-recognized credential has increased by nearly 1,185% over 13 years. First-year college GPA and course credits completed decreased slightly after multiple years of increases.
Other Key Findings

  • K-12 college preparation and reform appear to be working. There was a more than 14% decrease in students assessed as needing developmental education (16.9% total). Only 5.3% of students enrolled in a standalone developmental education course (in 2010, the figure was 27%).
  • In 2021 a total of 30,092 (48.8%) high school graduates did not complete a credential in high school or enroll in a postsecondary institution.
  • More than 29% of 2021 high school graduates enrolled in postsecondary education out-of-state; a 4% increase from 2020. More out-of-state institutions of higher education are recruiting in Colorado as the overall number of high school students is decreasing nationally.
  • Equity gaps in higher education in terms of college-going, retention, and credential completion persist.
  • Forty-two percent enrolled in college courses while in high school – and 64.6% of students that enroll in college courses in high school enroll in college the fall after graduation. In short, enrolling in college courses in high school is a strong predictor of college going after graduation.
  • The rate of Colorado high school graduates completing their postsecondary credential in four years and who enrolled at an in-state institution continued to rise and has done so since 2009. When including credential completion for students that enrolled in out-of-state institutions, the four-year completion rate decreased slightly.

Efforts to Improve Access: Free Application Days      
The Colorado Commission on Higher Education, CDHE and institutions of higher education partner with outside organizations to boost postsecondary enrollment rates. As part of Colorado Free Application Days, every Colorado public college and university—and several in-state private institutions—waived application fees for in-state students for three days. Almost 64,000 applications were submitted during the event, an increase of 2% compared to 2021, saving students more than $2.7 million in waived application fees. Nearly half of the applications (45%) were submitted by students of color and more than a third were submitted by first-generation students (34%). This year’s Free Application Days will be held October 17- 19, 2023.
About the report
Now in its 12th iteration, the Pathways to Prosperity: Postsecondary Access and Success for Colorado’s High School Graduates report provides both statewide information as well as district-specific results aimed at strengthening efforts to improve student success and alignment between the K-12 and higher education systems. The report was submitted to the Education Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives and the State Board of Education, pursuant to 23-1-113 [9] C.R.S.