Illustration by Dave Cutler

Graduates of Colorado high schools have a new way to earn bachelor’s degrees in their home state: through the online programs offered by Colorado State University-Global.

The Colorado General Assembly unanimously approved a bill, signed into law in March 2018, allowing the online university to enroll first-time freshmen in Colorado. CSU-Global was created to offer graduate education and bachelor’s degree completion, so the university earlier admitted undergraduates only if they had previous college credit and sought to finish their degrees. The new law opens virtual doorways to higher education for Colorado students with no previous college experience who seek flexible, affordable, high-caliber courses from CSU-Global, the nation’s first fully online public university with accredited degree programs.

The shift is a sign of a changing higher-education landscape, in which a grow-ing number of students want new and customized routes to degrees while navigating higher-education costs, along with work and personal responsibilities.

Data illustrate the need. In 2007, CSU-Global entered the online sphere adhering to the academic standards and financial accountability demanded of public universities. Since its first cohort graduated in 2009, more than 18,000 students have completed certificates, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees through CSU-Global.

The fully online model does not meet the needs of all college learners, President Becky Takeda-Tinker noted. Yet for some, it is a critical path to degrees that unlock career opportunities, simultaneously promoting workforce development and the economy.

“The year before this legislation passed, we disqualified more than 1,800 freshmen from Colorado who were seeking to enter our university,” Takeda-Tinker said. “Our enrollment counselors had to tell high school graduates in our own state that we could not help them. The recordings of those conversations were heart-wrenching, because we could hear a young person sounding completely rejected and defeated when the counselors tried to explain ‘no’ as gently as possible.

“With the new law, we can now have meaningful discussions and explorations, and then let students decide if CSU-Global can meet their needs for success, or what other institutions might be a better fit. That’s empowering instead of discouraging, and that’s exactly what we need to be doing as a public university in Colorado.”

In the six months after the new law took effect, more than 100 Colorado freshmen have started classes, records show. They live across the state, many in rural communities where the online option expands educational access. The first-time Colorado students join 200 additional freshmen, among nearly 20,000 total CSU-Global students living across the nation and in countries around the world.

The university’s freshmen, though small in number, are sticking with their studies: Nearly 90 percent of first-time students admitted in 2019 have continued online course work from their first to their third terms, a strong sign of retention.

CSU-Global offers 25 degree programs, with dozens of specializations and certificates. U.S. News & World Report ranks CSU-Global No. 8 on its list of “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs” and No. 6 among “Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Veterans.”