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The Role of Public Urban Research Universities in Making Education Work for All

October 20, 2021

Recent data from the Federal Reserve substantiates ongoing reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing structural inequities, placing the underserved, vulnerable, and those without college degrees at even greater risk. In a time of changing demographics and increasing income inequality, we need to rethink how to create affordable access to great education.

Our American system of higher education was designed to cater to the privileged few. But the ivory tower does not work for most. To counter our ongoing racial, socioeconomic, and gender equity gaps, we need to radically rethink who and how we educate. With so much at stake, I believe that the opportunities for higher education to create the kind of society that we aspire to in this country have never been greater.  

Chancellor Michelle Marks, PhD

Public urban research universities, in particular, are well suited to the demands of the moment. Our student bodies already reflect the emerging demographics of the country.  

More of our students are the first generation in their families to attend college. More are people of color. More come from middle and low-income communities. A large percentage work full-time jobs while pursuing their academic goals. Many have families of their own, and are seeking advanced degrees and microcredentials to enhance their careers. 

For these “talented many,” public urban research universities are a transformative force. We offer a high-quality education that fits the reality of their lives, incredible opportunities to engage in research, discovery, and creative work, and intellectual heft and networks that last a lifetime.  

Our location is significant, too. The metropolitan mindset is aspirational at its core, and eager for a challenge; it recognizes that inclusiveness means possibility, that access is currency. A big part of our value to learners is that we offer immediate access to a wide range of industries, entrepreneurial partnerships, diverse global connections.  

We are catalysts, partners to the people and communities we serve, strengthening our society and economy by building the talent and careers of tomorrow.  

Chancellor Michelle Marks, PhD

Public urban research universities don’t merely help close inequitable gaps in opportunity and social capital – we offer multiple pathways to innovation and growth. We are catalysts, partners to the people and communities we serve, strengthening our society and economy by building the talent and careers of tomorrow.  

And now must be our moment to usher in a bold and better era in higher education.  

What could this look like? CU Denver offers a model. We recently completed our 2030 Strategic Plan, advancing a radically inclusive approach designed to make education work for all. Importantly, our plan embodied the spirit of radical inclusion from the start: 3,000 members of our community came together to help create it.  

There are myriad tactical components, but the plan’s true power is best expressed in its intended outcomes. Here are just a few: 

  • We will become the nation’s first equity-serving institution. We know diversity alone is not enough; we must put equity into action, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that one’s racial and social identity no longer predetermines educational outcomes and professional advancement opportunities. We strive to make CU Denver a community where everyone belongs, and everyone succeeds. ​ 
  • We will become a university for life, recognizing that more learners want and need new ways to access affordable learning throughout their lives and careers, from 17-117. CU Denver will ensure that our learners enjoy the power of discovery – and opportunity – always. We will provide educational experiences in ways that fit into the practical reality of people’s lives.  
  • As an engine of growth, we will support a better standard of living and improved economic health across our state and region. CU Denver has just been recognized as the #1 institution for social mobility in Colorado, and #55 in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. We’ve climbed more than 50 spots in the rankings already. And we have much more work ahead of us. 
  • We will put our research and creative might to work helping to solve society’s grand challenges, starting with the creation of an open innovation district on and around our downtown Denver campus. Here, the talent and solutions of tomorrow will come together for the benefit of all. 

Higher education institutions have the potential to deliver enormous value to learners and their families, to communities, and to our society. And I believe we have even more to give. 

As we think about how best to serve our learners and the public good, we can’t abide by the status quo, can’t afford to watch trends unfold. If your institution has a bold strategic vision, go all-in and increase the scale and impact. If you lead a public urban research university, in particular, now’s the time.  

What the future asks of us – today – could not be more urgent. We must ensure equitable access to lifelong learning. We must make higher education work for all.  

A just and thriving society awaits our answer. 

Michelle Marks, Ph.D., is the chancellor of the University of Colorado Denver.