Academics and Research / Fall 2015

Chancellor Rebecca Chopp to spotlight educational access at September inauguration

Editor’s note: Read other stories from the fall 2015 issue of the University of Denver Magazine at

On Sept. 18, Rebecca Chopp will be inaugurated as the University of Denver’s 18th chancellor. The day will involve the expected amount of pomp and circumstance, but amid the festivities, Chopp has a serious point to make: Higher education really matters, especially in Colorado.

To help underscore the role higher education plays in the Centennial State, Chopp has invited leaders from colleges and universities around Colorado to take part in the day, along with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The daylong inauguration event ends with Chopp’s installation ceremony, but earlier in the day, a pair of panel discussions will focus on two key issues: the effect of research institutions on the state’s economy; and the importance to Colorado of increasing access to higher education.

Learn more about the inauguration and register for events at Watch a live stream of the events at

“Education should do three things,” Chopp says to the latter point. “First, it should prepare you for a lifetime of work and career success. Today’s graduating high school seniors are expected to have between 10 and 15 different jobs over the next 20 years in three totally unrelated fields, one of which hasn’t come into existence yet because technology is changing so quickly. Second, since the founding of this country, education has been about educating people for citizenship. Citizenship isn’t just voting; it’s also understanding policy and being able to debate our complex problems.

“Third,” she says, “[education] should enlarge your interior. It should give you capacity to understand and see the world. All parents want their kids to be successful, and all parents want their kids to contribute to community. But all parents also want their kids to flourish, to be happy in a classic sense: To drink deeply from the wells of life.”

One major topic of discussion at the inauguration will be how to ensure access to higher education for a broad and diverse range of Colorado students. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is scheduled to moderate a panel discussion on the issue, leading a conversation with Chancellor Chopp; Tim Foster, president of Colorado Mesa University; Stephen Jordan, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver; and Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System.

Recently, Chopp and Miriam Tapia Salinas (MA ’12), DU’s executive director for diversity enrollment and community partnerships, sat down with the University of Denver Magazine to discuss that issue, reflect on their own experiences as first-generation college students, and examine the role of higher education in our rapidly changing economy.


University of Denver Magazine: You were both first-generation college students. What was it that kept your parents before you from going to college, and what was it that allowed you to go?

Chancellor Chopp: I don’t think anybody in my parents’ world went to college. Girls grew up and got married, and the guys worked as carpenters or plumbers or good working-class professionals. I don’t think it was really in their imaginations to go to college. I grew up in rural Kansas, and that wasn’t a place where college was seen as necessary back then in the way it is now. There especially wasn’t support for women to go to college—all the women my parents knew all grew up and got married.

I think the only way I got to college was that my boyfriend got drafted and went to Vietnam. I went to a state school for a while, and as a first-generation student, that was just overwhelming for me. I couldn’t find a pathway. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. There were 8,000 majors, no RA’s in the dorm, no teaching assistants to help. I ended up getting financial aid through the intervention of a local church that I didn’t even belong to. There was a farmer there who wanted to provide some access to help young women go to college. So I went to a local liberal arts college called Kansas Wesleyan.

Miriam Tapia Salinas: I come from a family of immigrants. My mother came from Mexico, and she had a fifth-grade education. My father came from Bolivia, from a family of educated engineers, bankers, teachers and nurses. My stepfather was also a Mexican immigrant, and he moved to Denver and built a marble and granite business. While my parents didn’t have the opportunity to complete college due to family responsibilities, each of them instilled the pursuit of higher education as a top priority in the path to American opportunity and freedom. More importantly, they modeled a strong work ethic. Before you knew it we came from being at the lowest level to being upper middle class, and I was a full-pay college student. Although we had funding, people didn’t understand that our family didn’t have the navigational skills or the understanding of how to select a college, and so that barrier [to higher education] truly existed. We had no idea where we could have gone to college. We often talk about what could have been if we’d had better advising. However, as a DU alumna (MA ’12, higher education administration), I think I did all right! That’s why I’m so passionate about college access—I strive to ensure that others don’t face the unnecessary barriers I did and to expand their opportunities.


University of Denver Magazine: Chancellor Chopp, you’ve made a career as an academic, an author and a higher education leader. What role did your own college experience play in helping you to achieve these things?

Chancellor Chopp: It showed me a world I didn’t even know existed. It showed me an external world and an internal world, and it taught me things about myself I didn’t know. I didn’t know I was smart; I didn’t have any confidence; I certainly didn’t know I was good at things like writing and analyzing and being with people. It got me into debate, and that was fabulous for me. It gave me tools and competencies to navigate the world.

I’ll never forget sitting in a sociology class my sophomore year when the scales literally came off my eyes—I could just see the world open up. Before that, I thought the whole world existed like my family in rural Kansas. I didn’t know that people could be so different.


University of Denver Magazine: Obviously, lack of income is a huge barrier for many low- and middle-income families seeking to send their children to college. What is DU doing to make its programs more financially accessible?

Chancellor Chopp: My top priority is providing financial assistance to our students. Having had the experience myself of working full time and going to college, I don’t want our students to have to do that. I was in the second year of my PhD when I was finally able to stop working incredibly hard [at an outside job] to pay my bills. I cannot tell you the difference that made. You can’t do your best academic work or contribute to building a rich academic community when you are worried about money.

Our students need to be available to the full opportunities of college. We have pretty extensive aid—86 percent of our undergraduates get some level of financial aid. Some of that is merit-based, but about 49 percent of that is need-based. Still, the fact that students are on need-based scholarships doesn’t mean their full need is being met. Even if you are getting $35,000 in scholarships, you may need another $10,000, and that’s really got to be our focus.

Our students have an average debt load of approximately $28,000 when they graduate, which is around the national average. We’d like to bring that debt load down, and we certainly don’t want it increased. We are blessed with high persistence rates among our students [meaning that they stay from one year to the next], but we care tremendously about the students who can’t stay, and we know that if their need gap is over $10,000 or so, they are just as likely to drop out as to stay.

Miriam Tapia Salinas: DU went from offering $66 million in total aid in 2007 to a projected $146 million in 2016. But the challenge lies in our ability to attain and utilize endowment funds [as opposed to DU’s operations budget] for financial aid, so that we can launch creative initiatives to attract a more diverse student body and then support those students once they’re here. Previous scholarship efforts prove we can achieve many of our enrollment goals and attain the strongest students from all backgrounds when we reduce their financial pressures and limitations. We really need the assistance of our alumni and our community to support that effort.


University of Denver Magazine: What are some of the other issues around access to higher education in Colorado that get less press than the income barrier, and what is DU doing to address those?

Chancellor Chopp: As our public schools have experienced funding reductions, they no longer have the counselors and advisors they used to have to let students know about college. And once first-generation students like myself get into college, they have a hard time getting on the information highway: going to the dean’s office if the have a question, or seeking out counseling if they’re struggling, or visiting a faculty member. They are trying so hard to adapt to a new environment that the last thing they want to do is admit they are struggling.

Miriam Tapia Salinas: To help remedy some of this, we run the Pioneer Prep Leadership Institute, two programs that help prospective black and Latino students navigate college life at DU by building their leadership skills and teaching them about college access and their cultural identities. The persistence level of students from those programs who attend DU [meaning the likelihood of staying from one year to the next] has been close to 100 percent over the last four years, and that is unheard of. We also partner with groups like the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which has helped send more than 100 of our current students to DU. The persistence rates of those students are higher because they’re in a personalized environment that has the capacity to care for and support them. Additionally, DU continues to lead the nation in the number of Daniels Fund Scholars attending our university and creating a legacy here. With approximately 22 percent domestic diversity make-up in our first-year class this fall, we truly are creating a rich diversity of students and experiences that benefit the entire DU community.

Chancellor Chopp: I have been incredibly impressed by the partnerships between DU and foundations like DSF, because it’s not just about money—it’s about the foundations providing support in terms of personnel on campus and in terms of putting students in groups and providing them support as a group. All of our research has shown that if you can help a student have a very successful first year, chances are that they will soar in the next three years.


University of Denver Magazine: How does making DU more diverse turn the school into a richer place for its students and faculty? And what’s at stake if universities like DU can’t increase access?

Chancellor Chopp: Financial aid and access to higher education has certainly provided people like Miriam and myself with opportunities. But the benefit is not just the opportunity for the aided students—it’s the fact that Miriam’s comment in class may be the single thing that gets through to the whole group, or that Rebecca may be a wonderful debater. Aid and access have always been about three things: giving opportunities to individuals, building the community that students need to learn, and identifying the merit pool for democracy—the very best possible leaders.

Miriam Tapia Salinas: There is also an industry focus. By 2020, experts project that nearly three-quarters of all jobs in Colorado will require some level of postsecondary education. And there’s the fact that companies with more gender and racial diversity have been shown to outperform their less diverse competitors. Beyond industry, it’s an issue of democracy and equity. It’s a responsibility and a privilege for us to intellectually and socially prepare the dynamic leaders of tomorrow who reflect our evolving nation. I’m honored to expand DU’s pioneering college access efforts with a visionary leader like Chancellor Chopp in the driver’s seat.

Chancellor Chopp: I think a lot about the fact that in the Denver Public Schools, Latinos make up 57 percent of the student body, and Denver is expected to be a majority minority city by 2020. So to help Denver’s future, we have to make sure that a fair number of those students have access to DU. That requires helping those students, but also making sure that the city and the metro area have leadership teams that are representative of the population.


University of Denver Magazine: Do you see a role for online learning in making schools like DU affordable to a broader range of students?

Chancellor Chopp: The leading opinions have really changed on this over the last five to 10 years. A decade ago people were thinking that online learning was going to take over and we would never need to build a dorm or a library again. And then we realized that 18- to 20-year-olds don’t learn very well sitting at their computers alone. Learning is a social enterprise, not just an individual one.

Online education will certainly help in a hybrid way, and we already have a lot of that at DU. In a lot of classes, students learn best if there is an online component where they can do drills and skills testing, and then there is still in-person debate and discussion.

We have online programs in University College, which is dedicated to older undergraduates and master’s students. Some of our professional schools have online programs. And I think we’ll see that trend continue. But online education is not going to replace in-person education for most young Americans. Now, the big frontier is what it will do internationally: Can it provide some access to countries and parts of the world that literally don’t have enough universities?






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