An Educated Guest

S2 E11 | Serving Equitable Learning for Life

Guest: Michelle Marks, Chancellor, University of Colorado, Denver

What does it mean to be an equity-serving institution? And how can universities actually serve learners for life?

Michelle Marks, Chancellor of the University of Colorado, Denver (CU Denver), sheds light on these topics in the quest to redefine the public, urban research institution. On this episode of An Educated Guest, hosted by Todd Zipper, EVP and GM at Wiley, Todd and Michelle explore CU Denver’s ambitious strategic goals to equitably serve a diverse population of students for life.

Key Takeaways:

  • How CU Denver is redefining the public urban research institution
  • The impact of CU Denver partnering with Apple and K-12 to teach tech skills early
  • How the university’s Smart Cities living laboratory can improve Coloradans’ quality of life
  • How CU Denver’s work as an “age-friendly university” is creating a new, non-traditional learner demographic

Guest Bio

Michelle Marks is the Chancellor of the University of Colorado, Denver, as well as a tenured professor. She is well-known for developing innovative programs that help students succeed, attracting new student populations, facilitating research opportunities, and driving new revenue growth.

Previously, Michelle served as vice president for academic innovation and new ventures at George Mason University. In this role, she focused on leading strategic partnerships to deliver online programming at scale and support adult degree completion.

Michelle holds a BS in psychology from James Madison University and an MA and PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from George Mason University.

Podcast Transcript

Close Transcript

Speaker 1:

You are listening to An Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers. Hosted by the Executive Vice President and GM at Wiley, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:

I am Todd Zipper, host of An Educated Guest. On today’s show I speak with Michelle Marks, chancellor of University of Colorado Denver, the state’s only urban research institution.

With the aim to make education work for all. Michelle is known for developing innovative programs that help students succeed, attract new student populations, facilitate research opportunities, and drive new revenue growth.

Before becoming CU Denver’s Chancellor, Michelle was vice President for Academic Innovation and new ventures at George Mason University. There, she led strategic partnerships to deliver online programming at scale and support adult degree completion.

The key takeaways from our discussion today, first, how CU Denver’s is striving to dismantle higher ed’s ivory tower, and redefine the public urban research institution.

Second, CU Denver’s unique goals to be a university for life, and the nation’s first equity-serving institution.

Third, how CU Denver is partnering with Apple and school districts to teach tech skills early.

Fourth, what’s behind the university’s smart city’s Living Laboratory to improve quality of life for Coloradans?

And lastly, how CU Denver’s work as an age-friendly university is creating a new, non-traditional demographic of learners.

I’m really looking forward to digging into the work that you’re doing at CU Denver. But before we get there, can you please tell us about your career journey, and how that led you to become CU Denver’s chancellor?

Michelle Marks:

Sure. Well, I’m a career educator. I’ve actually only worked at three universities my whole life. After graduate school I started at Florida International University in Miami as a psychology professor, and then went to George Mason University, the largest public university in Virginia, for 18 years as a business school professor, and then in some administrative roles.

And at some point when my daughter started her own college journey, I was approached about applying for the chancellor role at CU Denver. I really didn’t know Colorado, but I was intrigued by the diversity of the student body and the opportunity that I saw in Denver.

Todd Zipper:

Wonderful. So let’s start talking about CU Denver. I believe it’s this school’s 50th anniversary, which is still relatively young compared to some colleges out there. But certainly decades, decades old. You have over 15,000 students, and your campus is in an incredible location in the city of Denver, right there in the middle. And I’ve been there, city that’s growing. I think it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

And so I really would love to understand how CU Denver exists within a larger public university system like University of Colorado. And I know there’s also the Colorado State University system. I know there’s also an online global campus school, I believe. So it would be great to just kind of lay out the framework for how the public university system exists in Denver. In Colorado, rather.

Michelle Marks:

Yeah, sure. It’s fascinating to think about the differences in how public education is done across the states. It’s different in Colorado than it was in Virginia. Colorado has two relatively small public university systems, as you just mentioned. The University of Colorado, that has four campuses, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, our campus, and a medical school.

And then Colorado State University has three campuses, including an online campus. And then there are some independent public universities together. The University of Colorado, Denver, is unique in that it’s Colorado’s only public urban research university. So we’re the only public research university located in downtown Denver, which is a wonderful advantage.

Todd Zipper:

Absolutely. So you arrived in July, 2020, just at the middle of the pandemic. It must have been a bit of a…

Michelle Marks:

Yes, I did.

Todd Zipper:

A crazy time. And so I’d love to understand a little bit more about what the university was facing then. Obviously, you might have had a plan. But obviously that changes a lot when there’s a pandemic raging. So how did you guys adapt during that time period, and you yourself coming into that situation?

Michelle Marks:

It was a very strange time in the world. I not only were we in, at the time didn’t know it, but it was sort of the beginning of the pandemic, and certainly in a shutdown phase of it. It was also one month after George Floyd was killed. And as we all remember, that was quite a moment in America. And our campus had been vandalized, and some windows were broken in some buildings during … I mean. There were, certainly Denver saw a strong response to that as well as many other cities.

And of course, we were about to have a presidential election and political tensions were and are high. And so it was a challenging time in Denver as well as everywhere. When I started, it was very challenging to meet my community because we were working virtually. And yet it was a time where there was enormous amounts of anxiety, enormous amounts of fear about family members dying.

It was pre-vaccine. I was starting a job. I remember the first day walking to work and going up an elevator 14 floors to where my office is located, and being alone in the building. And meeting my community virtually.

I started with a hundred-day listening tour. I chose to make the first 10 days, and it all had to be done virtually. That was what it was available. Which actually had some advantages in terms of being able to outreach. The first 10 days of that listening tour were exclusively focused on racial justice. Because that is what my community needed to talk about.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, so I want to stick with the city theme here. And as we talked about, I mean it’s the only public institution located in a rural center. I grew up in New York area, and have been exposed to schools like NYU, Columbia, Pace. And they’ve done so well many of these schools by being part of the city in a sense. They’re not just a school that located in the city, they’re part of it, and what makes it great.

And so how is that sort of impacting CU Denver’s trajectory right now in terms of being part of the city, and how are those two things feeding each other? The city to the university, the university to the city.

Michelle Marks:

In so many, many ways. And just a bit about CU Denver, we’re 15,000 students literally located, as you mentioned, right in the heart of downtown Denver. And we have many nationally-ranked programs, criminology, education. We have a top 10 environmental policy program. We have the state’s only architecture degree program. So we have some just incredible programs.

But in addition to the excellence, we don’t look like a traditional college. Half of our students are first generation in their family to go to college. 70% of our students are working. Half of our students are multi-institution students, who transfer in. A lot of our students are commuter students, in addition to having dorms on campus.

And so this really shifts the frame of how we think about the university and the students who we serve. In terms of Colorado itself, it’s an interesting moment. There are two job openings for every single unemployed person right now in Colorado.

Colorado companies, as you may know, they employ some of the most educated and skilled talent in our entire country. And while for years, possibly decades, Colorado has been a net importer of talent, people want to come and live and work in Colorado. 2022 is the very first year we became a net exporter. So what I talked about in terms of the diversity of our student body as an urban public, and the need for talent, and the need to get more of our Coloradan talent through higher education and into the workforce. That makes us very important in this moment in time.

I’m out there talking with employers all the time about, what do you need? And of course they say talent, talent, talent. Educated talent. But they also say that they want their workforce to look like their customer base. They want their workforce to embody the emerging demographics in the state.

And we provide that. We provide a diverse student body that’s got a ton of talent, a ton of grit, and are more likely than not to stay in Colorado. So it’s a very interesting moment. And I’m also happy to talk about how we integrate with the city if you’d like.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, I would love to hear about how you guys are benefiting being in the city, and also how they’re leveraging you to think about, like you said, the jobs of the future and how you can prepare. Because like you said, many of your students are already living there, commuting, so they’re more likely to stay. Which makes you a really valuable builder of talent for the city and the state,

Michelle Marks:

That’s exactly right, Todd. I came from, I spent 18 years at George Mason University. And although that’s a very populated area outside of Washington, DC, The University of Colorado, Denver, is right in the heart of the city. Some would say we anchor the city. And because of that, it gives us, like many urban institutions, an opportunity to partner with cities. I mean, our campus essentially is the city. So it’s just some specific examples.

Right now we’re in the middle of our legislative season. We’ve got students who are interning at the Capitol. Denver, the city of Denver is experiencing some major city challenges like cities post-pandemic all over America. And so for example, when we were trying to solve a concrete problem in the city of Denver, there wasn’t access to childcare, enough access to childcare to get people back to work.

We reached into our school of education and found experts, and paired them up with people who work for the city to come up with some novel solutions. We have amazing arts and media programs, and our faculty showcase their talents, and do concerts, and showcase their art in the city. We have a very strong public affairs school that produces policy reports on major issues that the city is facing.

Another amazing thing is that if you’re a student at the university, you benefit from this. Because a lot of our instructors are faculty, are professionals. They’re the architects that are building the buildings of Downtown Denver. That are teaching classes in our architecture program. We’ve got our banking executives teaching in our business school. There’s so many opportunities to make each other stronger just by virtue of the co-location.

Todd Zipper:

That’s great. So I want to switch to your strategic plan, and build on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here. You’ve been quoted as saying you wanted to redefine the public urban research university. It is the most important thing you could do for higher ed in the future of America. Powerful statement. I think you’ve been hitting on some of those themes, but I want to make sure I fully understand what this sort of redefining the public urban university can look like.

Michelle Marks:

Well, we have a notion of higher education being the ivory tower in America. And in fact, it was started with an intentionality of keeping higher education separate. Higher education was something to educate the elite, to lead the masses.

And we’re at a very different place in America right now. There have been many attempts, and there’s been a focus nationally to expand higher education, to be more inclusive of many more populations over the centuries and the decades. And yet, we still find ourselves with enormous equity gaps. We also have a tremendous amount of changing demographics in America and in Colorado, and a lot of shift in what we need in the workforce.

It’s our priority at CU Denver, as one of the most diverse institutions in the country right now, and certainly in Colorado, that our focus is ensuring that everyone gets access to a great education. And that means rethinking a lot about the way we educate.

Todd Zipper:

Interesting. So I think I want to dig into this, because I read your first goal is to become the nation’s first equity-serving institution. So can you expound on that a little bit of what you mean? I think you’ve just kind of touched on some of those points, but I’m really curious about what you mean by this bold statement.

Michelle Marks:

We believe that diversity, and equity, and inclusion need to be at the heart of every single thing we do. We have a strategic plan 2030, which fundamentally embodies an inclusive approach to designing education that can work for everybody.

In some cases, that means removing barriers that exist. In some cases that means meeting learners where they are, meeting that moment for them. If we’re successful at this approach, that means that no matter your background, no matter what your lived experience, no matter what zip code you happen to be born into, no matter where or whether your parents went to college or not, that you’ve got the same shot at getting into and through college.

And I know we’re not there as a society yet, but I think we need to commit to think differently about how we operate. And for us, that means giving everyone a shot.

Todd Zipper:

How do you think about measuring the success of that goal? So you make changes throughout how you charge, or like you said, I mean you have online, you have in-person, you have success coaching. All these different models that you’re going to keep experimenting with to try to drive outcomes. But how are you thinking about looking out five, 10, like you said. Or 2030 is now seven years out into do the math on that. How are you thinking about defining that success?

Michelle Marks:

Success for us, as you mentioned, that we would be able to eliminate the disparities in student success. And whether those are degrees, or educational outcomes that are important to students, it’s eliminating those disparities. And you mentioned a couple of the ways.

I mean, the medium and longer term outcomes is truly enabling everybody to succeed at equal rates. What do we need to do in the short-term? There’s a lot of shifts and changes we make. You mentioned online education, and finding delivery mechanisms that allow learners to meet their moment in the way that can work for them. That’s one really important way to do it.

Another way is thinking about how education affordability is. It is an enormous barrier for so many of our students. 40% of our students are Pell-eligible, and we have to think about finding ways to take away the barrier of a cost to a great education.

We’re also thinking about what our faculty and staff look like, and how we want students to see themselves in their faculty, and in their students. And thinking about how each of our colleges and schools can come to the table with an equity mindset.

Todd Zipper:

So with that in mind, one of the big topic, issues going on in higher ed today is that the Supreme Court is looking at affirmative action right now. Do you have an opinion or perspective on what that does, I guess, if they rule it down to the system today. Do you think it’s a major setback or how do you think we adapt depending on the ruling?

Michelle Marks:

We believe that everybody deserves access to a great education. And so as far as CU Denver is concerned, we’re going to continue to use all methods possible to make sure that every student has an opportunity for a great education at CU Denver.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, I think it’s worth noting that CU Denver, are you more in the open enrollment model where, again, if you hit certain requirements you can get in? How do you think about admissions?

Michelle Marks:

We’re not an open enrollment institution. But right now we look broadly at applicants success factors and we don’t think the Supreme Court ruling is going to have a big impact on the way that Denver is currently doing business.

Broadly speaking, we know there are a lot of political differences and perspectives on this. And I personally believe that we need to use every means we can to ensure that we have multiple pathways to be more inclusive in bringing learners into our higher education system.

Todd Zipper:

Absolutely. So let’s stick with this theme, and move it around tech careers, right? This is a big theme in society today. You mentioned the two jobs for every one person unemployed. My guess is a lot of those are in various forms of digital and technology careers, certainly where higher education is critical.

We recently did a study at Wiley that had, I think it was 70% of companies are struggling to recruit historically underrepresented talent. And then furthermore, 39% of talent respondents said they didn’t have or know how to get the right qualifications to pursue a career in tech. So this is obviously a big issue that our society is facing right now. How are you guys thinking about? I know you’re doing, again, a lot of stuff in this area. How are you thinking about closing some of these skill gaps at CU Denver?

Michelle Marks:

Well, we are doing a lot. I’ll talk about a few things, and I’m really proud of what we’re doing. And your study is very important, and it is true. And I hear that. I can affirm the results of the study that you all did with every conversation that I have with leaders of tech firms who are looking for more talent and more diverse talent.

Our engineering, and we have a college of engineering, and design, and computing that’s very unique in the country. We have grown our Hispanic enrollment in the college by 145% over the last five years. We’ve grown women’s enrollment by 77% over the last five years. And undergraduate enrollment in engineering is growing like crazy. We have one of the largest percentages of students of color in our engineering school.

So in many words we’re already there, although there’s always more to do. Specifically, we’re forming partnerships that will help us help the whole talent ecosystem in Colorado. One I’ll mention in particular is we launched a partnership with Apple in 2022. And this involves, it’s a community education initiative. Where the partnership is between Apple, CU Denver, and our school surrounding school systems.

And it helps K-12 students and teachers in both urban and rural areas gain the technology and the training they need so that teachers understand how to teach tech skills to students. Which opens doors, tech skills, and student interest, and experience with tech before they get to college with the hope of increasing both their interest and their competence in tech and the pathways into college in those fields.

Todd Zipper:

So sticking with this employer partnership here, I read that you all received a $2 million federal grant to launch a smart city’s incubator and accelerator program to increase access to technology and tech jobs. So can you double-click on that a little bit? It sounds really exciting. And what have you been able to see so far in the project?

Michelle Marks:

Yes, this is so exciting. Just to back up and frame the issue, as an urban university, we see the great need to have cities be smarter. To have cities be able to use technologies to improve things like air quality, and water quality, and traffic, and smog, and the infrastructure and public safety.

Really, there are a lot of big issues that cities are facing, and Denver is no exception. The technology that we have today can be applied to help cities get smarter about thinking about real solutions to those problems.

The program that we launched will do a few different things. One, we’re developing a certificate program that’s targeting students and mid-career professionals that are interested in knowing more about smart cities so they can work in this field. And two, it creates a living laboratory that’s going to support the development and testing of smart cities’ prototype products and services.

It really is a way that we’re working with the city and with our partners to be innovative as a research institution. To create hands-on learning experiences to support not only our city and state, but create solutions that can be used all over the country and the world. And also, we just announced 12, there’s also an incubator, an accelerator program that’s a part of that.

And we just announced this week the 12 entrepreneurial companies, selected from 42 applicants, that are going to be in the inaugural 2023 Smart Futures Lab incubator beginning this week. And all of them are building these kind of technology solutions to confront quality of life issues across Colorado. And beyond transportation safety and climate change.

And tying that in with the equity lens we talked about before. All of these inaugural companies represent the new majority. They have black and minority and women-led companies. So it’s really exciting.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, absolutely. Wow. So let’s hit on your second goal, which I think is to become known as a university for life. This is another really interesting way to phrase things. So I’d love to understand what that means, and what you’re hoping to accomplish here.

Michelle Marks:

We talked about Denver being sort of the anti ivory tower institution. We serve learners across the age span, actually part of our DNA. Our 50 year, you mentioned earlier that it’s our 50th anniversary, our 50th birthday. That’s true. We actually started as an independent campus. Our origin story, we spun out of the University of Colorado in Boulder originally, as a campus for adult learners in the city of Denver. Who were working full-time, and taking graduate programs at night.

Now we’re much bigger and we have a large undergraduate program now. But the niche for supporting learners across the lifespan has always been something that we’ve done. And now especially, with the exception of a Covid blip, we are living longer as adults. And we need to be learning longer.

And we are shifting careers, as you well know. Because I think we’ve talked about how it’s important to keep learning, going in various ways at different points in your career. We are serving learners at every stage in their careers, at every stage in their lives.

And so our goal for becoming a university of life is thinking about, again, how we can meet the learners. We like to say from age 17 to 117, keep them learning, keep people upskilling, keep people reskilling, get people back into the workforce across the state and beyond.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, it’s great. And leads me to another set of questions around, what does education look like and how do you measure success? So I want to jump into one of the things that, I believe, the University of Colorado campuses have aligned around. A value index, specifically around the value of a degree.

So this has become an increasing area of interest for all of higher education for the workforces. What is the value of a degree? How do you know that what you got is going to help you in your life and get you the ROI you need? Can you talk a little bit more about how you all are thinking about that as it relates to degrees. But then I also want to jump into the alternative to credentials, to degrees. I know you guys are doing a lot of work there also.

Michelle Marks:

Well, how I define what’s important is something that I’m incredibly proud of. The University of Colorado, Denver for the second year in a row is ranked the number one Coloradan institution for social mobility. And that means that students and learners who come from households with lower socioeconomic situations are able to use their education to spring forward and create more social and economic mobility. And I think that’s a very clear definition of what success looks like For me.

The University of Colorado system developed a value index that measures a range of variables, and measures the bachelor’s and how other advanced degrees lead to greater lifetime wellbeing and satisfaction overall. It turns out that degrees, and I think this is no surprise to those of us who’ve been in education for a while, but the degrees correlate not only with higher incomes, but also living longer, and greater health, and greater happiness. We don’t use the values index every day by any means, but it does illuminate the broader value of higher education.

We know for our students, at CU Denver especially given the backgrounds that they’re coming for, employability is front and center. But we also know that the society that we want to live in is one where people can do things like sort fact from fiction, and make good decisions, and show leadership capabilities, and find empathy, and strength in our differences.

And so we focus on how to help students represent their learning in the classroom so that they can get great jobs. Because that’s very important. That creates a lot of value, that economic mobility. But it is more than that. We also need to think about ensuring that we’re creating the future society that we all want to live in.

Todd Zipper:

So I want to stick with the University for Life. And I know you guys are doing a lot of work around micro and alternative credentials. So people are going to kind of come in and add education. They’re going to want to stack some of these credentials together. Can you kind of talk to us about what you’re doing in this area to sort of broaden the catalog and the opportunities for people to learn at CU Denver?

Michelle Marks:

Well, as a society, I think we need to acknowledge that for different people at different times in their lives, they need focus sets of skills either within a degree program. A lot of students, like my daughter, she’s about to graduate college in May. And that coming of age experience was really critical, and she’s learned great skills as well.

But a lot of people too are returning back to school, or completing a degree that they weren’t able to finish. Or want a specific, targeted set of skills that can help them advance.

And so for example, just this morning I was working with a leader of a company in the pharmaceutical space. And he is in dire need of people who have quality assurance skills as they develop and make drugs.

And so we’re working with them to develop a micro-credential in quality assurance that has the specific skills that he needs to hire. And this credential will be able to be completed either outside a degree requirement or within. People are in a bachelor’s degree and want to take this credential within their program.

So that kind of flexibility and stackability is the way that we meet the moment for a wide variety of learners that have different needs at different points in time.

Todd Zipper:

I love that career-connected education example you gave. So just kind of sticking with this, I read that CU Denver, I think it says, will guarantee experiential learning opportunities to every student, and that you also have two registered apprenticeship programs with the state of Colorado.

Can you talk a little bit more about this experiential learning? That seems really powerful.

Michelle Marks:

It is powerful. And especially, again, I think for all students, but for our students who are so focused on careers moving forward. And frankly, I think so many students want real, tangible, as you mentioned, career-connected, career-relevant education in and outside of the classroom. And for a university that’s located within a city, it’s not that challenging to do.

We have developed two registered apprenticeship programs. That’s one of many ways that we do it. These programs were developed through a relatively new Earn and Learn program. This Earn and Learn program was established in 2021 through the state of Colorado.

Our particular programs in this apprenticeship program are the construction project management program and a user experience design program. And they allow students to do both classroom learning, but also get paid to work within companies. And it’s obviously an incredibly successful and important program.

But of course, 70% of our students are working and learning on any given day. And because we’re so much a part of the fabric of the city, students are working all kinds of jobs during their education, and are able to walk back to campus, or take classes online, or take classes at night so that they’re able to manage work experiences and learning experiences.

And one thing that we’re working hard on, I think that we have a lot more to do in this space, is the focus on credit for prior learning. Because so many of our students have worked amazing jobs where they’re getting incredible experience, and we’d like to find more ways to help that prior learning experience translate into college credits and a runway into or back into college.

Todd Zipper:

That’s so powerful. I also read about, and maybe we’ve covered it already, the Changemakers program. That’s again, another, you guys do a lot of great branding around your initiatives. Can you talk about this a little bit?

Michelle Marks:

Well, yes. And first let me say I’m very proud, because we just got designated an age-friendly university. That is important because Colorado’s demographics are that the most rapidly growing segment of Colorado’s population are residents that are 60 years old and older. That’s really interesting. It’s the first time ever that that’s happened. The rate of growth for older Americans is growing faster than the rate of college-age Americans, which has a lot of implications.

And CU Denver has a strong role, has been a big player in educating across the lifespan. One particular, we’re doing a number of things that support being designated as an age-friendly university, but one of them is this changemakers program, which is new.

It started in January, and it’s a semester-long program for older individuals. They are experienced professionals that are thinking about how they renew and expand their purpose as they transition to possibly the end of their primary careers.

And they’re thinking, they have the opportunity to audit classes. They work together in a cohort. It’s modeled after similar programs across the country, like ones at Harvard and Stanford. There was a recent Wall Street Journal article that chronicled all of our programs.

The first cohort, we have 18 participants. We’ve got a second cohort beginning August. It just shows where we are as a society. And a lot of people are thinking about what transition means, what they can do next, and how to keep learning going.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, it’s fabulous. You really are that 17 to one seven. I love it. I love that analogy. So we’ve covered so many of your initiatives going on in your long-term goals. Is there any other projects or initiatives that we just haven’t hit on yet?

Michelle Marks:

The other thing, I guess there’s one thing we’re continuing to think of ourselves as an anchor research institution in the city. I’ll choose a moment to brag about a fascinating research project that we have going on right now.

Our school of architecture, faculty members, and students were selected by NOAH, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to build the next science station for scientists that are working on fisheries in Antarctica. They had to design a science station, and actually bunks for scientists to live, in no man’s life. To be able to save fish and wildlife in that part of the world.

And so they built it. Todd, you’ve been to campus and that we’re urban. And they literally designed and built this project with students and NOAH scientists in the middle of campus outside, so that the city could watch the growth of the science station.

And then they took it apart. And they flew, and then Zodiaced pieces of the science station from the southern tip of South America down to Antarctica in 30 zodiac trips. And then reassembled it and spent the summer there, which was our winter, reassembling. So now the scientists have stronger place to live and work down there.

What’s exciting, that’s just one. We talked about experiential learning opportunities, and it’s just one of many incredibly cool things that research universities bring to the learning experience of students. Especially the diverse students who we serve that just would never have these kind of incredible experiences.

Todd Zipper:

Yeah, there’s definitely a new ivory tower there. I love what that must have looked like to watch, the building of that. So before we close, I do want to hit on a couple of just macro higher-ed topics that are going on, that are sort of impacting potentially in major ways our whole system.

The first is around student debt, right? We are about to enter, I think it’s, I don’t know when, I think it’s in August, the commencement or the beginning of paying back student loans. Which has been pushed off, which got to be three years or now.

So there could be some challenges in the market, whether it’s defaults start to go up a lot, people protested. People are expecting student debt relief, which hasn’t come. Or came, but people are … There’s a lot going on here. So I mean, funding of the model, given there’s billions, hundreds of billions each year coming in the system, how are you guys thinking about the student debt challenges that we’re having right now?

Obviously, we’re technically over 1.5 trillion, but a lot of it’s not getting paid back. Right now maybe it starts to. How are you thinking about this?

Michelle Marks:

You said it right, that student debt burdens a lot of our alumni. And we need to figure out how to close equity gaps that stem fundamentally from the imbalances in our financial resources across America. So all of that is true.

And to be a true engine for social mobility, it’s hard to do when so many people are burdened by that debt. I have been a strong and vocal advocate for a couple of things that I think that we really need to do to support higher education affordability for low and middle-income students.

And one approach has been to increase Pell. We did see some increase in the Pell grants this year. We were hoping to see even more increase. Again, CU Denver has 40% of our students who are Pell-eligible. And we’re just one of two universities in Colorado to actually increase our Pell-eligible population since 2012. So this would be very important, in an ongoing way, to support students.

I also think another is just increasing public support for higher education. And I think Colorado is maybe 49th in support of higher education, public support of higher education. So we’re grateful to the support we get, but there comes a time when we have to decide as states and as a nation to what extent creating an inclusive economy is going to be the driver of economic success as states and as a country. And I’m a big believer that a strong higher education, a public higher education system is the best driver we’ve got.

Todd Zipper:

Amen to that. All right. So the next topic is pretty recent, and this is around generative AI. We’re all trying to figure out what is ChatGPT right now? And I feel like I have to ask the question, just like in 2021, you’d have to ask about pandemic.

This has the potential to change learning pretty dramatically. And obviously, a lot of the attention goes towards cheating. And you could just go ask ChatGPT to write a term paper for you, or something along those lines.

But how is the university right now, how do you think higher ed right now is taking on this new artificial intelligence technology that seems to be pretty democratized, but also seems to be wrought with all sorts of challenges, but also opportunities? How are you thinking about it?

Michelle Marks:

Well, you are right. It is the talk of higher-ed right now. We are certainly having conversations all over campus. Certainly conversations that talk about how we deal with the risk for abuse of it, that’s true.

But I think we’re cautiously optimistic about the technology. And I think with every time a new technology comes in and disrupts the way we do things, we’re thinking about how can we use this to democratize education? How can we use this to support long-term health outcomes? How can we use this to learn more about society’s grand challenges that we have big data to solve?

Last month, our division of teaching innovation and program strategy here on campus led a university-wide dialogue on the topic, which included people from, we have a machine learning lab in our college of engineering. I think we’re still figuring out the risks, but I do think there’s even greater potential to help us really take the next step towards solving some of our greatest challenges because we can access and utilize data in a different way.

And we’ve been talking for a while about whether humans will replace machines. I mean, it’s sort of another step into this conversation. I think there’s always going to be a critical role for humanity with the advancing of technology.

Todd Zipper:

Wonderful. Well, I’ve always loved the idea of having a tutor at my beck and call, which of course is very expensive to do. And maybe this allows students to have access to a tutor that can help them really with certain obstacles that they’re having in courses, and kind of advance. Which would then hopefully improve retention, and all good from there.

So look, we’re wrapping up here.

Michelle Marks:

Todd, knowing you, you’re already exploring.

Todd Zipper:

I am, I am.

Michelle Marks:

Yes. I’m saying knowing you Todd, you all are already figuring that out for us, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Todd Zipper:

Absolutely, we’re working on stuff. So we’re going to wrap here. This has been such a wonderful conversation. Is there anything you want our audience to just walk away understanding from our conversation today?

Michelle Marks:

I think as a society, we need to wrestle with the question of how we make higher education work for all. Not just for those who can afford it, not just for those who are born to parents with degrees, or not just for those who live in urban areas. And think about what would we do differently if we wanted to create an inclusive economy.

We need more models and more choices. We need less duplication of each other. I’m excited to be a part of the conversation.

Todd Zipper:

It’s wonderful. Thanks for leading the charge. So this is my last question. Part of what we all love about education is that we’ve had learning champions. Who has been a learning champion for you, and how has that person helped you in your life?

Michelle Marks:

Oh, I’ve had so many people that I’ve learned so much from. Today I’ll mention Bob Smith. He was a professor in my graduate program at George Mason University, and I worked my way through graduate school to pay the bills. Part of it was as a teaching assistant.

And I did that for money, but I guess as a method of quality control, faculty members sat in on our classes to make sure that were doing right by the students. And the feedback that he took time to give me, both learning feedback but also support, changed my thinking about my whole career and made me consider academia. And so I’m grateful to Bob for that.

Todd Zipper:

Wonderful. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.

Speaker 4:

Thanks for joining us on today’s episode. If you like what you’re hearing, be sure to subscribe to an educated guest on your listening platform so you don’t miss the latest episodes. For more information on Wiley University Services, please visit

  • Let's Talk.

    Complete the form below, and we’ll be in contact soon to discuss how we can help.

    If you have a question about textbooks, please email

  • By submitting your information, you agree to the processing of your personal data as per Wiley's privacy policy and consent to be contacted by email.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.