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Earning a postsecondary credential of value remains a critical investment for Coloradans and for meeting workforce demands

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DENVER – Dec. 5, 2023: Today the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE), released its annual Return on Investment Report, which helps students, families and Coloradans better understand the value of earning a degree or certificate. Now in its fifth iteration, the report reaffirms that completion of postsecondary education yields significant benefits for individuals and families. Colorado graduates benefit not only through completion and advancement but also from readiness to join the labor market equipped with the high-demand, highly competitive skills required for them to thrive in their unique career pathways.
The ROI report supports students in making more informed choices by providing data about credits to completion, average cost, debt for completion, and wage data. The state utilizes these metrics to guide its goals around affordability and cost containment. As the state continues to expand opportunities for learners in career pathways that weave together education and training credentials, the report helps identify educational avenues for lifelong learning and enables more Coloradans to earn while they learn.
“Today, as learners demand more from the value proposition of college, Colorado strives to provide all its learners with quality degrees and credential programs that include skills training to ready individuals for the workforce and signal to employers that the completer holds that in-demand skill,” said Dr. Angie Paccione, executive director of CDHE. “We want to give our learners as many options and affordable opportunities to personalize their journey with the resources and social capital they need to succeed and advance throughout their lives.”
While wages depend on many factors, such as an individual’s occupational choices or field of degree, the more educational advancement a learner completes, the more likely that individual is to develop the skills needed to qualify for a high-demand, high-paying job.
Key findings

  • Earnings for workers ages 25 and over continue to increase as educational attainment rises. In 2022, the labor force without any postsecondary experience had median earnings of less than $1,000 per week, compared to almost $1,500 per week for those with a bachelor's degree and more than $2,000 per week for those with a doctoral or professional degree.
  • Labor force participation rates increased with each level of education, with the highest rates for those with a bachelor’s degree and higher.
  • Debt among graduates of Colorado’s public institutions has declined by 5% among those who attended four-year schools and 10% for those who attended two-year schools since 2014. The percentage of graduates with debt has also decreased in recent years.
  • In addition to the favorable employment outcomes, higher mean annual wages are associated with higher education. Short-term credentials and associate degrees result in a 31.5% increase in median wage levels, while bachelor’s degrees provide a nearly 50% increase.

Other findings
While 60% of businesses reported they were hiring (or trying to hire) during the first quarter of 2023,  

  • Nearly half of employers have jobs openings they currently cannot fill (47%), 
  • 90% of employers stated they could not find the skills they need across job seekers, and  
  • 88% of employers have job openings that are seeking skilled workers (relative to 19% of openings seeking unskilled talent).

These statistics are associated with small business employers, which represent 99.5% of all businesses in Colorado’s economy, employing 1.2 million people in 2022.
To address these economic development issues and systemic silos across education and workforce sectors, Colorado made a historic $85 million investment in the Opportunity Now grant program, providing incentives for innovation between education and employers to grow the state’s talent pool.
With nearly 90% of these types of employers seeking skilled talent, acquiring postsecondary attainment that allows individuals to gain knowledge and experience in their field of choice has never been more critical to the success of Colorado.  
The Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) recently released an updated strategic plan focused squarely on rising to this challenge and the Colorado legislature enacted HB22-1349 to further support this work. To support the implementation of this strategic plan and legislation, CCHE convenes a Technical Working Group of local stakeholders and national experts to determine and define Colorado-specific measures of postsecondary value and student success measures that assess the progression of students through postsecondary education and the impact of postsecondary pathways on a student's career opportunities and success.
Additionally, a student’s total return on investment can be defined at individual, societal, economic, and non-economic levels. Students experience postsecondary value when provided equitable access and support to complete quality credentials that offer economic mobility and preparation to enter the workforce. Colorado’s higher education ecosystem is student-focused and encourages students to think critically, build problem-solving skills, and ultimately, become champions of their best selves. While some of these learned attributes are not easily measurable, they tend to be compensated for in the workforce and help advance social and economic justice in society.
Colorado institutions also recognize this need for change and continue to expand affordable options to learners. This year, many have adopted pre-college programs to provide postsecondary credentials for free to high school students. This way, even before they graduate high school, they have earned college credit and become more competitive in the labor market. In addition, for students from families below a certain income threshold or who come from certain areas, several Colorado public institutions guarantee zero-cost tuition and fees. Several of these programs are listed in detail in the report.
About the report
To inform lawmakers, taxpayers, and students on the value of postsecondary education in Colorado, H.B. 18-1226 directed CDHE to publish an annual return on investment report. The report was submitted to the Senate and House Education Committees of the Colorado Legislature, pursuant to 23-1-135 C.R.S.
About the Colorado Department of Higher Education
Working with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, we support students, advocate and develop policies to maximize higher education opportunities for all. The Department believes every Coloradan should have an education beyond high school to pursue their dreams and improve our communities. Read the strategic plan, Building Skills in an Evolving Economy.