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Building the First Equity-Serving Institution at CU Denver

Dr. Monique L. Snowden - University of Colorado Denver - Steppingblocks

Season 1  |  Episode 5  |  Carlo Martinez and Dr. Monique Snowden, CU Denver

Goal One of the 2030 Strategic Plan at the University of Colorado Denver is to become the nation's first equity-serving institution. Goal Two is to become known as a university for life. Both are working to catalyze social mobility and provide a diverse workforce for the future.

We sat down with CU Denver's Senior Vice Chancellor for Strategic Enrollment & Student Success, Dr. Monique Snowden, to learn more.

Listen to this episode on Spotify!


[0:06] ERIN KING

This is your host Erin from Steppingblocks and welcome back to DataU. More people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We're here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong, and which institutions are rising to the challenge. In Season One, we're investigating the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing challenges in higher education. Carlo, can you talk about why we're here today?  


We're here today with Dr. Monique Snowden. I am super excited. Thank you so much for joining us today. We want to talk about student success. We're going to talk about the new initiatives that are happening at the University of Colorado Denver. First of all, I am super excited to meet you, Dr. Snowden, thank you so much for accepting our invitation to talk to us. Dr. Snowden is a nationally recognized leader in education recently named the Senior Vice Chancellor for Strategic Enrollment and Student Success at the University of Colorado Denver. Super exciting things happening there: Recently recognized as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. A lot of things that we'll learn about, but thank you so much for joining us. 


Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Let's jump into a conversation about student success.

[01:18] MARTINEZ

Let's jump in. Well, let's jump into the why. I think I always want to know: Why are you here? What drove you to be passionate about student success?

[1:28] SNOWDEN

My passion for student success is grounded in having been a first-generation college student and one who started as a transfer student. Although I was admitted into Texas A&M University as a first-time freshmen, I decided to go to a community college instead, and then when there was successful. So, my passion really for students comes from the fact that it has been the difference in my life relative to mobility. And that's what I try to do with my career: is try to help students find the right path for them. There are so many different paths. Hopefully, that pathway brings them through an institution I'm at, sometimes it doesn't though.

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Student success is interesting, because it's not a new thing, right? But it is a new thing, in a way.  It means different things for different people. Recently, Georgia State has started the National Institute for Student Success, and you see more and more institutions starting these initiatives. What does it mean? What does student success mean at the University of Colorado Denver? 

[2:30] SNOWDEN

Well, I have to invoke a colleague of mine. Unfortunately, we lost him a couple of years ago, Bob Bontrager, who was at the AACRAO. He was the Executive Director of Consulting there. He was at Oregon for a number of years. Back in 2007 Bob started writing about student success in the context of enrollment management. I think that's where we're at today: is that a lot of institutions think about student success as intrinsically tied to their enrollment management strategies. That's the case here at CU Denver. As well as I think that's the case with Tim [Renick] as they did their wonderful work at Georgia State University.  


So if I could tie in something here: innovation of becoming an equity serving institution, a university for life, right? It's enrollment during the school years and what happens after, right? What happens after graduation? So how do you tie the student for life vision to student success? How do you tie what happens after graduation into your initiative?  

[3:38] SNOWDEN

When we think about that for student success, what we're saying for university of life is that a lot of times we think about being a student just at one level, right? Even when we talk about first-generation college students we really only talk about first-generation when they're undergraduates. The reality of it is that many of them are first-generation as they move on to graduate education, or they're getting a master's, or like myself, even a PhD. When we talk about university for life, what we're doing is embracing this notion that students will drop in, kind of continue to rotate in and out of institutions. In the continuing education space, they talk about it as a 60-year or a 100-year curriculum. Here at CU Denver, we say that we want to be here for you between the ages of 17 and 117.

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What we mean by that is to say that we're working with students as they're in pre-collegiate, right, before they even come to our institution. Then we're working with them as undergraduate students. We want to also be able to provide the types of learning that are necessary for us to be successful out in today's economy. That isn't just simply a degree. For some students along the way, they're going to try to get a certificate, right? It's not an either/or for students these days. It's and in both. I think that the university of life embraces the fact that students are going to pick different pathways than we've seen ever before. I'm amazed by all the majors, minors, mega majors, all the different options that we have, micro-credentials, and that's what really the university of life is about. It's centered around digital transformation as well. 

It's saying that we have to be ready for our students, whether they're in-person or they're going to be hybrid or they're going to be fully online. This notion of bifurcating our services for them, this is something that's going to become outmoded here in higher education. We're going to have to really think about: How do we bring all these things together and just say, okay, you're a student. What modality are you studying? What modality do you want your services in?


That poses a lot of challenges, because I think there are a lot of changes that need to happen. Institutionally, you need the buy-in from a lot of different people. You also have to be more transparent about the outcomes and what happens to people after graduation and how they switch, right? Because, like you said, people might go into one career, then they switch. What have been some of the challenges that you've faced or that you've seen, or you foresee happening, in the implementation of student success programs? 

[6:12] SNOWDEN

Well, I think first of all, one of the challenges is that our capacity as institutions got rocked during COVID. We really found out a lot about, first of all, what we didn't do, but even more importantly, what capacity we do have to do if we actually were put in a situation where we must do something different, right? So I think that coming post-COVID, what we've started to understand, is that our students are more complex. Their lives are more complex than we actually are structured in our institutions to be able to address. I think that this links into what we talk about being an equity serving institution. What we're saying about that is we need to basically look at all of our policies, practices and procedures and see what are the barriers to students actually being successful.     

What we found out is that there are a lot of artificial barriers, artificial in the sense that they're real to the students; but actually, you have practices that people call policies, and you have to really get underneath of that. We have to be willing to go ahead and re-envision, the university as it's worked before, for the students that are coming to us today, and particularly, be prepared for the ones who are going to come to us in the future — who are going to be even more diverse than the students we see in our populations today. 


Do you see, as you talk about that, a big gap now with first-generation students and students that are more established with COVID. Is there anything that has to be done, especially to cover that gap, with people that maybe just need to get access to a university? So now some people have more access to information than others. What are some of the things that you think will need to be adjusted to allocate for that? 

[8:05] SNOWDEN

That's a good question, because here at CU Denver approximately 48 percent of our students are first-generation students who come to us in undergraduate education. What our data tells us is that actually our first-generation students, particularly when the intersectionality is with low income, actually show greater retention and graduation rates than those who are not in those groups. I think it's the intersectionality that we have to pay close attention to, because it's not just simply that they're first-gen, but if you look at first-gen and you look at what's the difference between low income/higher income, you'll see some different outcomes. 

I think what we're learning about this is that the nuances of how we look at students, we tended to look at students in just singular categories, right? We're looking at low income. Then over here, we're looking at first-gen, or we're looking at underrepresented minorities. Actually, the sweet spot is in the intersectionality of that, really starting to understand: Who are these students? And they're more multifaceted a lot of times than our systems are set up to actually treat them.  


As you're developing the programs, do you work with others? I know you mentioned you were or have worked with Tim [Renick] in the past with the NISS, but what are some of the other institutions that are out there that can help, or some other organizations that are working with you in the effort of enhancing student success programs at your university? 

[9:42] SNOWDEN

Well, we're fortunate here at CU Denver to be the only urban-serving university in Colorado. We work a lot with the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the entity that really works with urban-serving universities. It's through our work there that often we get, perhaps these small, let's just say micro grants, that it's not the granting or the money that's most essential to us. It's the partnerships and the relationships and the learning that we get from the cohorts that we're in. For example, currently right now we have a small micro grant to work with students who are 25 and older or Latin X, black, or indigenous. It's an adult learner. One of the things we're looking at is: What different types of advising models might an institution put in place that are more equity focused?

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We know that our advising is really fashioned off of long-time research that's been done in student development area. Most recently, some colleagues wrote a book about square pegs in round holes, looking at basically diversity in the student development theory, as well as in advising practices. Some of the institutions that we tend to partner with are fellow urban-serving universities (Portland State University, the University of Memphis is one of them, University of Houston), so a variety of institutions that are similarly situated. When we say that, what I really mean is that their population of students tend to be more diverse, in those urban centers.

So, those are some of the institutions we partner with, but locally here, we actually work with the Denver Education Attainment Network, DEAN, and they work with us on various matters of looking at pathways from the Denver public school system, into our community college system. Ultimately, those who transfer into CU Denver. 

[11:46] MARTINEZ

So on that, one of the things I actually wanted to ask you was on measuring effectiveness of the programs, as you progress through the programs. One of the things, at least for us, that's really important is what happens after graduation. Are people getting jobs? Are they staying on track, regardless of where they switched careers? Where did they end up going? And that's one measurement of success. What happens after graduating? What are some of the metrics that you currently have in place, or that you guys are tracking through your partnerships, that are saying when you're moving in the right direction with your programs?

[12:09] SNOWDEN

That really calls into play our collaborations between institutional-level student success entities (like what I run is a division) and then our colleges and schools. Because our colleges and schools actually are closer; let's just say they have a finger on the pulse of where students are ultimately ending up and how they might funnel back through the institution. There's a number of initiatives, particularly our business school, which actually just opened up it's first first-generation advising center now, who are really hooked into not only the local workforce, but also ones beyond Denver and even Colorado.

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