Drive Enrollment Growth with First-Gen Pathways to Success:

Changing Higher Education Podcast 167 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Marielena DeSanctis

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Changing Higher Ed Podcast 167: Drive Enrollment Growth with First-Gen Pathways to Success
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

August 8, 2023 · Episode 167

Drive Enrollment Growth with First-Gen Pathways to Success

43 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

As higher ed faces enrollment challenges, fostering diverse pathways for first-gen students creates new opportunities for driving enrollment growth.

As higher ed nears the looming enrollment cliff, colleges and universities looking to drive enrollment growth must identify more pathways for students to obtain a college degree, especially in the case of first-generation students. Unfortunately, many higher education practices complicate first-gen students’ ability to stay through graduation or even apply.


In this podcast, Dr. Drumm McNaughton speaks with Dr. Marielena DeSanctis, president of the Community College of Denver, who shares some of the solutions she was able to identify based on her unique understanding of higher ed.


Dr. DeSanctis is unique. She started her education career in K-12 and moved to community college leadership. Her mother was a first-gen student while she was a first-gen ‘traditional” student. These experiences have taught her how both sectors can collaborate and leverage each other’s strengths.


For higher education presidents and boards, Dr. DeSanctis talks about critical partnerships that must be implemented at the K-12 level to help support first-gen students through college, along with the mindset higher ed should adopt when working with the families of first-gen students.  In addition to discussing innovative orientation and graduation formats, Dr. DeSanctis explains the inherent problem with AP/IB/ACE and dual/ concurrent courses, and an issue she’s particularly passionate about that’s making the equity of higher ed impossible—equivalency of transfer and credit.


Podcast Highlights



  • All prospective students, especially first-generation students, need to feel they can be successful in college. Colleges can help instill this mindset by partnering with high schools to provide support structures that help students navigate higher ed policies and processes and could lead to them doubting themselves once in college. For example, most first-gen students don’t know they can petition the academic standards committee for an extenuating circumstance to have an administrative drop from their course when they can. Colleges must also help communicate the ROI for getting a post-secondary degree.


  • These supports must be implemented at the K-12 level so higher ed can monitor the progress of prospective students. These should not be done as part of the regular campus tours, as students need this provided to them in extra information sessions.


  • Higher education leaders must realize that many first-generation families with different ethnic backgrounds have strong familial ties and roles, and asking someone to step away from their traditional role by going to school can be a significant request. In other words, to get the student to enroll, you must convince the student AND their family.


  • For that reason, the Community College of Denver’s graduation takes place outside and is an all-day affair with a DJ. Families can come for 15 minutes to receive the diploma and leave, or they can stay for four or five hours. Students also can bring whomever they wish on stage when receiving their diplomas.


  • Student orientation shouldn’t be half or full-day affairs, as people lose focus after 20 minutes. In your LMS, store modules with information typically presented at orientation so students can access them anytime.


  • With AP, ACE, or IB courses, high schools are inadvertently thinking about their students who are more likely to go out of state to a traditional R1 university and pushing them towards these courses because they’re universally accepted.


  • With concurrent or dual enrollment courses, sometimes a publicly funded university, even in the same state, will not accept the community college course credit as equivalent. This creates stratification within the high school of AP/IBAs and dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment based on where the high school counselor, teacher, or athletic coach advises the student to go.


  • Dual or concurrent enrollment courses are too often taken by high school students at the high school instead of on campus. Additionally, some high schools must pay for students to take their courses on a college campus or are even reimbursed for teaching the courses themselves. However, having these courses at the students’ high school will not make them feel like higher ed students who will succeed in college – they will feel like they’re taking an advanced or honors high school class.


  • It is not acceptable that a student is forced to retake a course when transferring to another institution, especially when they are public colleges or universities in the same state. This will result in the student likely stopping out.


  • In Colorado, the Metropolitan State University at Denver, the University of Colorado, and the Community College of Denver share the same campus. Dr. DeSanctis found that CCD students had to retake the same courses when transferring back and forth between these three schools. She presented her findings to the two other university leaders on campus. At first, they were defensive. However, they eventually commissioned a task force to investigate, charging them with being transparent about their findings, providing monthly reports and a final report at the end of a year, and writing a strategic plan based on their results.


  • After finding this was happening, campus leaders had CCD more closely align the course objectives at the two other universities or had faculty identify all of the course learning objectives with an equivalency of transfer and credit. Both solutions helped students wanting to transfer credits between institutions.



About Our Podcast Guest


Dr. Marielena DeSanctis has more than 23 years of experience in education, including classroom teaching, curriculum development, instructional design, learning assessment, and progressive leadership roles in K-12 and higher education. Before her current leadership role, she served as the Provost & Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Student Services of Broward College, Broward College’s Central Campus President, High School Assistant Principal, Principal, and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.


Dr. DeSanctis actively and passionately advocates for her local, state, and nationwide community. She has served as a committee member and leader of several professional organizations, including her election to the position of State President of the Florida Association of School Administrators, Senate confirmation as a member of the Florida Education Practices Commission, and a Board member of the National Community College Hispanic Council. Dr. DeSanctis currently serves as a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Board on Higher Education and the Workforce; a member of Jobs for the Future Policy Trust Council; on the Workforce Development Committee of Downtown Denver Partnership; and as a Board Member of the Colorado Education Initiative. She is a graduate of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence and Leadership Florida. She received the 2016 Hispanic Woman of Distinction, among other honors.


Before answering a call to education, Dr. DeSanctis served almost six years of experience as an engineer in the manufacturing and construction sector. Her education includes a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in Math Education from Nova Southeastern University, and an Ed.S. and Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Florida Atlantic University.


Born in South Florida to a mother who emigrated from Cuba, she is fluent in Spanish. Among her accomplishments, she is most proud of her two children – Conner (27), an engineer, and Allie (24), a lawyer.


About the Host


Dr. Drumm McNaughton, the host of Changing Higher Ed®, is a consultant to higher ed institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.



Transcript: Drive Enrollment Growth with First-Gen Pathways to Success | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 167 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Marie DeSanctis


Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions, with your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of the Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at And now, here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.


Drumm McNaughton  00:31

Thank you, David. Our guest today is Dr. Marie DeSanctis, president of the Community College of Denver. Dr. Sanctis has more than 23 years of experience in education, including classroom teaching, curriculum development, instructional design, learning assessment, and progressive leadership roles in both K-12 and higher education.


Dr. Sanctis is one of the few people whose experience includes K-12 and higher ed. She joins us today to talk about something she’s uniquely qualified to talk about, the steps that higher ed must take to create new pathways for college education. Marie, welcome to the show.


Marie DeSanctis  01:11

Hi. Glad to be here.


Drumm McNaughton  01:13

Glad to have you as well. This is going to be a fun conversation. You are the first president I’ve had on the show that’s had both K-12 and higher ed experience. So you’re going to be able to see things from a very different perspective than most guests.


Marie DeSanctis  01:32

Well, I certainly hope so. And I certainly hope that this helps advance something in education.


Drumm McNaughton  01:39

Absolutely. I’m sure it will. Before we get into our topic for today, tell our guests a little bit about who you are and your background.


Marie DeSanctis  01:51

Sure. As Drumm said, I’m Marielena DeSanctis. Most people just call me Marie. I was born and raised in South Florida, the Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach area, to a mother of Cuban descent. She came to the United States in 1961. My dad is Finnish and Irish. My mother is our family’s first-generation student in the United States. My mom graduated from college the same week I graduated from kindergarten. So not exactly first-generation college student, but pretty close. Pretty close.


I went off to Georgia Tech and got a mechanical engineering degree, which I’m not sure you and I have spoken about, Drumm. I spent some time in engineering, working on major water and wastewater treatment plants all over the country. This entailed a ton of travel. I was a young mom and started thinking about what was next for me and engineering. So I took a gap year before a “gap year” became a popular term and taught math and physics at a high school in South Florida.


That was 1998. Here we are in 2023, and I am still in education. I taught for six years and then became a public high school assistant principal. I then became the principal of Fort Lauderdale High, which is the oldest high school in Broward County, Florida. Then I became the assistant superintendent of curriculum and Instruction. In a lot of districts, you would call that a chief academic officer. But being the sixth largest public school district in the country, Broward County delineates a couple of different assistant superintendent roles.


I was getting ready to think about applying for K-12 superintendent roles and had been working nationally across the K-12 landscape as a consultant out in Modesto California. I was working with a school over in Puerto Rico that was getting ready to be reconstituted for failing to make adequate yearly progress for 7+ years. So I had this broad reach in K-12, even outside of South Florida.


I was obviously interacting with our local community college Broward College quite a bit, and its president kept telling my superintendent, “Oh, I’m going to steal her one day.” They would have a giggle, and he would say, “I’m not kidding.” Then they would giggle some more. This went on and on and on for a couple of months until the president of Broward College at that time, an amazing leader named David Armstrong, reached out to me and said, “Hey, you know how I keep telling superintendent Runcie that I’m going to steal you one day? Well, today’s the day.”


You know, Drumm, I said, “Let me step through that door. What’s the worst thing that can possibly happen? I’ve got a national reputation in K-12. If I don’t like it or I’m not good at it, I can always step back into K-12. But I really want to know what happens to students after I’ve handed them that diploma on stage for their high school graduation. I deeply want to know what the college experience is about. I think I have something to lend to college in terms of bringing in students from high school.”


I came to find, of course, that community colleges don’t just serve students that come right out of high school, but the whole gamut of people who are either changing careers later on in life or put college on hold for a long time and want to come back. I fell in love with the mission of community colleges, and how they can be the impetus for economic development of the community it serves. So here I am, president of the Community College of Denver.


Drumm McNaughton  05:48

Well, it’s a long way from South Florida.


Marie DeSanctis  05:51

Yes, it is. It’s a lot colder.


Drumm McNaughton  05:53

Really? I never would have guessed that. So, Marie, you find yourself here at the Community College of Denver with all this K-12 experience where you’ve had multiple roles. What do you see that colleges can do to pave the way for first-gen students? Right now, we look out there and 50% of all “college-age students” are not going to college. Is that a problem? Is that something we need to worry about?


Marie DeSanctis  06:27

Drumm, it’s an incredible problem. Right here in Denver, 50% of our Denver Public Schools graduates, on average, are not moving on to a technical college, community college, or university after they graduate. It’s a huge problem, particularly when 80% of that 50% are students of color. Then we wonder why there’s such a huge post-secondary attainment gap in Colorado between Hispanic residents and white residents, and black residents and white residents.


So what can colleges do? They can form partnerships with the high schools in their area. These high schoolers need to deeply believe they can be successful college students. They also need to believe there’s a return on investment in being a college student, both not only in terms of the tuition they’re going to pay for themselves or the financial aid and grants they’re going to apply for, but the time that it takes to get that post-secondary credential and the time that it takes away from being in the workforce and with their family. That doesn’t happen overnight.


However, that partnership does not happen. Normally, a college only does a little information session at the high school or students come over, hear a little presentation, and do a little campus tour during your local high school day. There must be a well-thought-out, formal program with a college in the area that has multiple touchpoints through all four years of that student’s high school experience. This must happen even if they ultimately end up going to a different college or university. Somebody has to be the main partner with that high school to get those students to know they are college bound, believe they can be successful in college, and build that support network so that when they start to doubt themselves after they made that leap and applied, we don’t end up losing them during that time period between their high school graduation and going to college.


Drumm McNaughton  08:51

I’m going to go into a little bit of psychology if you don’t mind. This was totally antithetical. For me, it was assumed you were going to college. That was it. Why is it that so many people don’t want to go or don’t feel like they need to go?


Marie DeSanctis  09:09

Oh gosh, Drumm. I don’t know that I’m the expert to answer that. I can only speak to my own life experience. When I was growing up, my mother left everything behind when she left Cuba in 1961, including her mother. She didn’t know when she was going to see her mother again. She left all her behind, her toys behind, everything. She raised us with this notion that the only thing that people cannot take away from you is your education and that education will give you as many opportunities as possible.


Think about it. I have a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech and I’m a college president. If I had gotten a degree in education, I wouldn’t have been able to apply to an engineering firm, right? So it was not only about getting an education. It was what’s the highest, most rigorous amount of education that’s going to give you the most options? So like you, I didn’t grow up thinking, “Am I going to go to college?” It was, “Where am I going to college?” So it starts with that conversation in the household.


So when you’re thinking about first-generation students, you’re not only convincing that student. You need to convince their family because it is a family affair to send a first-generation student to college. For that reason, the Community College of Denver has a very unique graduation. We do it outside. We have a DJ. It’s an all-day affair. Families can come for 15 minutes, receive the diploma, and leave, or they can stay for four or five hours and enjoy DJs, food trucks, and all that. But when the student receives their diploma, they can bring whoever they want to on stage. Sometimes the student brings their dog and they say, “They’re the only family I have.” Sometimes they bring 30-strong this whole family unit because the whole family participated in that student going into college.


So it starts with that conversation at home about the expectation that you’re going to college. When you’re talking about a first-generation student, how do people who never went to college build that expectation into their child? That’s really hard to do.


Drumm McNaughton  11:39

It’s interesting you bring that up. One of my good friends is Russell Lowery-Hart.


Marie DeSanctis  11:43

Mine as well.


Drumm McNaughton  11:47

Yeah, he’s an incredible man. When he came to Amarillo, he asked the folks in enrollment, “What do you need to be more successful?” They said, “Laptops. Give us laptop computers.” And he goes, “Why?” Well, it’s because they don’t have people come to their offices. They go out to people’s homes. They have to have laptops with them to be able to show them what’s going on. You’re not selling the kids. You’re selling the entire family. Selling isn’t the right word. But we all know what we mean. You’re trying to enroll the entire family.


Marie DeSanctis  12:33

You are. Number one, you have to think about it in terms of the opportunity cost. Number two, depending on that families’ ethnic background, there are very strong familial ties and roles that people play within that family, and you’re asking them to do something doing something different, right? You’re asking them to put aside work in order to spend some time in school. You may be asking for somebody in that family unit to step away from a traditional role because they’re having to spend some time in the classroom and doing homework.


So it’s a larger conversation than just “Hey, come to college.” You have to be attentive to broadening their perspective of what post-secondary education options are and what careers those lead to. All of us suffer from, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”


Drumm McNaughton 

Except for you and me.


Marie DeSanctis 

Oh, no! I suffer from what I don’t know all the time. And this comes from a Virgo who normally would not admit to that. But I suffer from, “I don’t know what I don’t know” all the time. So you think about particularly how quickly the labor market landscape has been changing over the last 10-15 years. Moreover, it is going to do nothing but continue to accelerate toward jobs of the future not even being imagined today. You are breaking them out of saying “I want to be X because my next-door neighbor is” or “…my aunt is,” or “…my cousin,” and having them think about different careers that propel them into a different quintile of economic mobility and economic capital.


Drumm McNaughton  14:31

It’s kinda like yourself being an engineer or me going to the Naval Academy and studying physics. Who’d have thought we’d have gone into education?


Marie DeSanctis  14:42

Who’d of thought? Here we are.


Drumm McNaughton  14:45

Here we are and on a podcast, no less.


Marie DeSanctis  14:48

On our podcast, no less. Although I feel like what I do pretty much all day is engineering. As a college president, you are identifying the problem, creating a hypothesis, putting together an action plan, executing the action plan, and measuring the results. If it works, phenomenal. Do more of it. If it doesn’t, retreat. Stop. Cease and desist. Start with a new hypothesis.


Drumm McNaughton  15:20

Which makes perfect sense. It’s systems thinking or holistic thinking. You’re looking for what the outcomes are and tweaking things to change your outcomes.


Marie DeSanctis  15:29

You’re looking for patterns. You’re looking for outcomes.


Drumm McNaughton  15:35

So with these first-gen students, and frankly, with any student, you have to make them believe they can be successful. You have to provide the support structures so they can be caught when they start doubting themselves and then help them navigate the policies and processes they have to go through by going out to their homes, getting them enrolled, and convincing families. However, you need to have those support services at the schools as well and to be able to monitor progress.


Marie DeSanctis  16:06

Absolutely. It’s not just navigating the policies and processes to get into college. Again, if you’re a first-generation college student or near first-generation college student as I was, sometimes you don’t necessarily have the answers coming to you at home.


When I went to Georgia Tech, there were a lot of things that my mom just couldn’t answer for me. She had been an adult student in a community college and then transferred to a bachelor’s degree where I was in a very traditional R1 research university. Even though I wasn’t first generation, I was kind of left a little bit on my own to navigate the nuances of Georgia Tech.


The same thing happens today with students. They don’t necessarily intuitively know that they can petition the academic standards committee for an extenuating circumstance to have an administrative drop from their course. They don’t necessarily know that when they’re transferring and the university tells them, “Oh, we’re not going to accept that credit as equivalent credit,” they can advocate for themselves and that there’s somebody at the community college who can go beat up on the university and say, “No, that’s not what we do when we’re transferring students between the two of us.”


There are all of these little nuances of navigation from course number one through graduation that those of us who have gone to traditional four-year universities to get our bachelor’s degree know but students don’t. Even simple things like naming your Cashier’s Office, the bursar’s office. I’ll never forget the day I was walking around at Broward College, and a student was like, “I need to pay for my tuition. Where’s the cashier?” I looked and we were literally standing in front of the cashier, but the sign read, “Bursar’s.” That means nothing to a student. Nothing. It’s just simple things like that that you really have to step outside of yourself and think, “If I didn’t have the experience that I have, what does this campus look like to me? How would I know to do X, Y, or Z to navigate myself successfully through this very complex world of post-secondary education?”


Drumm McNaughton  18:45

You have that piece, which should go into your orientation. But when you have kids who are coming in and have no association with college whatsoever makes it doubly or triply more difficult. I remember having a guest on who’s the president of Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge. And you know of a few people who have heard of Cambridge before.


Marie DeSanctis 

One or two.


Drumm McNaughton 

One or two. They got to where they are enrolling 90% of people from public schools. This is huge. And what they’ve done is reached into high-performing high schools to bring folks in and they work with them while they’re still in high school. Then they have what they call a Bridging Week. They bring all these first-gen students in and put them through mini exams and small group discussions, etc. They expose them to everything and give them an incredible tour of their campus because Cambridge, as you know, is made up of 20-plus different colleges. So when they get to the orientation, they’re ready to get started.


Marie DeSanctis  20:10

That’s fantastic. In regard to orientation, we tend to design these half- or full-day orientations for students for expediency and efficiency. All the while, the research says that after 20 minutes, we all lose focus. I don’t care how old you are. We all focus. That’s it. We’re done. As a matter of fact, we’re probably 20 minutes into this podcast, and 90% of the people aren’t listening to us anymore.


Drumm McNaughton 

I’ve already lost focus.


Marie DeSanctis 

Right? We’ve totally exhausted their attention span. And yet, we believe that we can hit a first-generation college student with six hours’ worth of information and they’re going to remember it.


When I was at Broward College, we took all that content and built it into our learning management system so that students always had access to these modules. Students might say, “Hey, I seem to remember hearing about these different clubs on campus.” Well, now they can watch the module about clubs on campus and how to connect with them. Or, “Hey, I seem to remember hearing about this extenuating circumstances committee, but I don’t remember what the process was.” Well, you can just click on that module and go through that. Otherwise, they’re just drinking out of a firehose. They might catch 10% of what it was you said, but the rest is gone. You might as well have never had the orientation.


Drumm McNaughton  21:45

We’re not only talking about high school students. We’re talking about adults because adults are coming back to school as well.


Marie DeSanctis  21:53

Absolutely. This is particularly the case in community colleges. I would say, that roughly 30% of our student population is over the age of 25.


Drumm McNaughton  22:06

And those types of students have different demands. What comes to mind is what Steve Katsouros did at Arrupe College, which is part of Loyola University Chicago. They started a community college with the same high academic standards as Loyola and brought in multiple adults. Their graduation rates were phenomenal. The two-year graduation rate was over 50%, and the three-year rate was over 75%. Same standards.


Marie DeSanctis 

That’s impressive.


Drumm McNaughton 

These folks need to work, so their classes were in the morning and they’d work in the afternoon, or vice versa. They had all sorts of arrangements with local employers to make sure these folks had jobs. It was an incredible structure they put together there.


Marie DeSanctis  22:55

Well, that’s fantastic. I wasn’t aware of that. And I will definitely look into them.


Drumm McNaughton  22:59

Steven is with the Come to Believe Network out of New York. What they do is put together the funding models so other schools can emulate these kinds of programs.


Marie DeSanctis  23:13

Okay. Thank you. I learned something new today.


Drumm McNaughton  23:16

We all do. So with this, you have to get this sense of belonging for high school students. You have to get them the right funding. There’s also dual enrollment versus AP. Tell me a little bit about that.


Marie DeSanctis  23:35

This is a little bit of an interesting phenomenon that materializes within a high school. Depending on what state you’re in, several states incentivize high schools by having students take a college-level course or an equivalent. So whether that is advanced placement, ACE, your Cambridge program, your international baccalaureate programs, your IB, or concurrent enrollment or dual enrollment, which is where they’re taking an actual college course.


So what ends up happening in a high school is you start inadvertently or purposefully thinking about your students who are more likely to go out of state to a traditional R1 university and pushing them towards these AP, ACE, or IBs because they’re universally accepted. If you score a three or higher on an AP Exam, most universities will give you the credit towards that equivalent course at the university, depending. At Georgia Tech, they didn’t care if you got a five in calculus back in the day. You were taking calculus all over again.


By and large, AP, ACE, and IB are universally accepted. However, with concurrent enrollment or dual enrollment courses, sometimes a university that is publically funded even in the same state will not accept the community college course credit as equivalent credit. So you end up with this stratification within the high school of AP/IBAs and dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment, based on where the high school counselor, teacher, or athletic coach advises the student to go, which is very, very dangerous.


The other thing that happens in dual or concurrent enrollment depends on the funding structure within the state. Those college courses are either taken by the high school students at the college predominantly or at the high school. For example, in Florida, the cost to a school district to send a student to the college has fluctuated from zero to about $78 or $79 a credit hour at one point in time back to zero. But it was minimal. In Colorado, it does not cost the school district anything. Actually, in some cases, they get financially incentivized to offer these college courses at the high school and then they have to pay tuition to send them to the college.


I propose that at the point in time in which a high school student is sitting in their high school building with a teacher that they may have taken for another high school class during their high school career, with the bell ringing every 50 minutes, with the announcements, and with the cheerleaders running up and down the hallway on a Friday before a football game, that student cannot possibly feel like a college student. They just feel like they’re taking an advanced or honors high school class. You’re not building a sense that “I am a college student who has been successful in a college class and who identifies with this college” while they’re sitting at the desk that they sat in three years ago for a course at their high school.


There are all these things at play that I don’t know that people are paying attention to at the state policy or the legislative level. They get these reports of how many students are finishing high school with 30 or more college credits. That’s fantastic. It’s saving a lot of people a lot of money towards their ultimate four-year degree. But at the same time, it’s not necessarily helping our most fragile students who don’t see themselves as college students make that transition to believing they are a college student. This is evident by the fact that 50% of Denver Public Schools high school graduates aren’t going on to technical college, community college, or university, even though many of them took concurrent enrollment classes sitting in their high school.


Drumm McNaughton  28:29

Which makes perfect sense. Then on the other side of this from the college perspective, are you going to accept the credits? What does the faculty think? Let’s talk about it from the college perspective as well.


Marie DeSanctis  28:46

Sure. Again, how colleges and universities are going to comport themselves is very dependent on state policy and the state. Drumm, I don’t care if people want to look at this from a social justice angle or from an economics angle. Either way, it’s wrong. It is unbelievable to me that a student takes a course from a publicly funded institution of higher education in a state that is accredited by the exact same accrediting agency as the university that is publicly funded in that state that’s a mile away and that that university is allowed to say, “Oh, no, you need to take that class all over again. You took psychology 101 at the community college? We’re going to transfer it as credit. But it’s going to be an unspecified elective credit. You need to take our psychology one class in order to advance through your degree.”


Taxpayers in that state are paying for that class twice. The state is funding the FTE enrollment twice. Students are paying tuition, whether they’re personally paying or they’re using federal Pell grants towards that tuition, twice for the same class. How this is allowed to happen in many of our states is probably the soapbox that I’m on the most right now. I’m coming from a state that, since the mid-1960s, has had a common course numbering system. Other than the couple of universities that managed to get preeminent status in the state and have a handful of courses they’re allowed to make students take over again, if you take ENC1101 at any one of the 28 community colleges in the state of Florida, it has to be accepted by the public universities. That’s a bad example because EMC1101 is one of those ones that the three preeminent universities are allowed to not accept. MAT1140 I will use. It has to transfer rate. The university is not allowed to not accept it. And this has been going on since the mid-60s. It’s just de facto at this point. Nobody argues about it. It’s just the way it is.


Here on a 150-acre campus that’s shared by a community college and two universities, the three presidents have come to find that we have our own issues literally sharing buildings with one another and literally sharing adjunct faculty with each other. We will have the same adjunct faculty member teaching a course at the community college teaching the equivalent course over at the university. And yet, the full-time faculty at the university say, “No. The student needs to take that course over again.” We cannot move this country forward in equity of post-secondary attainment when we allow that to happen. It just cannot. There’s just no way around that. When you have a student that now transfers to a university and finds that they need to take 15-credit, 18-credit, or 21-credit hours over again, I propose that you have a very high risk of losing that student. So I know that the university may think they’re building revenue by making students take the courses over again. I would suggest that the number of students leaving community colleges across this country and not showing up in National Student Clearinghouse’s data as enrolled in a university a year later might have something to do with the equivalency of credit in transfer.


Drumm McNaughton  33:00

I suspect you’re absolutely right. So what can college presidents do about this?


Marie DeSanctis  33:05

I think they do the same thing that I’ve been doing with my sisters here on the Auraria campus. To the credit of the President of the Metropolitan State University at Denver, Dr. Janine Davidson, and the Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Denver, Dr. Michelle Marks, the three of us sat down and I presented the issue. To be completely transparent and honest, there was a little defensiveness at first. They said, “No, I don’t think this is going on.” And to their credit, they said, “You know what? The three of us are going to write a charge to a task force. We are going to charge them with being open and transparent about exactly what’s going on between our three institutions. We are going to ask for monthly reports, a report at the end of the year, and an action plan for how it is that we move forward.”


The directive came from the top. It came from myself, the president at MSU, and the chancellor at CU Denver. That team met monthly. And sure enough, they found that there were courses that were not transferring as equivalent credit. And the President said, “All three of us can’t have this happen. That means either the Community College of Denver needs to better align our course learning objectives for some courses or the university faculty members need to say, ‘Yes, 95% of these course learning objectives are the same and we’re going to accept that.”


That’s what we’ve done. We found several courses that we do have an equivalency of transfer and credit. I think even more impactful, and I am really happy to give credit to MSU, is that even if the course was considered equivalent and credit and the community college had brought it in through a credit for prior learning assessment, they automatically would not accept it, even if they would otherwise. They really sat down and thought about that. And they have now changed that policy. If the course is otherwise considered equivalent credit, whether we physically taught it or we went through our process to give credit because of prior learning and we executed that assessment, they would also accept it as equivalent. And, of course, since the Colorado Community College System is a common course numbering, it doesn’t just affect the students who are here at the Community College of Denver. It affects all community college students throughout the state of Colorado, which makes me happy.


Drumm McNaughton  35:52

Oh, that’s great. Marie, this has just flown by. What are three takeaways for college and university presidents?


Marie DeSanctis  35:58

Definitely. You have to put a robust program in place to help students in high school see themselves as college students. Again, that shouldn’t be an information session. It’s not one day at the college or university. It is a program that has multiple touch points across their career in high school.


College and university presidents need to grow a backbone when they’re talking with their faculty about the equivalency of credit and transfer, and how bringing more students into their class by not accepting the credit is probably not working for us. We’re in a declining enrollment environment. We need to think about how we are doing some of these things to make sure that we have the most students in our classes.


Also, you cannot create a sense of belonging on your campus for 30,000 students at a time. As I say that, I can guarantee you there are a couple of college and university presidents who are like, “Oh, what does she mean?” I mean, you can’t have stuff that spray and pray. You have to organize your students by something. I don’t care if you do it alphabetically. I don’t care if you do it by age. I don’t care if you do it by what is their favorite color. I suggest that you do it maybe by their program of study. You need to organize smaller groups of students and assign all of your employees, not just the advisor or the faculty member they happen to have this semester, to wrap around those students and empower them with data. Find out how the students are doing, if they are registered, how to contact them, and ensure that student belongs to that group no matter what.


I struggle with faculty members who say, “Okay, well, we have a business pathway, and that student is not in the business pathway semester. They are taking math, English, and psychology.” No. They’re still in the business pathway, and the people in that business pathway still need to be following up with that student, supporting that student, and contacting that student.


So why do you take large colleges and universities and break them into manageable pieces? Number one, it certainly improves a sense of belonging for students. But most importantly, it improves the sense of accountability for the people in the building, and not being able to make excuses like, “Well, enrollment is the business of student services,” or “Enrollment is the business of our admissions and advisors.” Faculty are the most impactful in enrollment. They’re the ones who see our students the most. They’re the ones who have the most communication with our students. They’re the ones who shape what students believe about themselves and believe about the quality of the education they’re receiving. So those would be my three things.


Drumm McNaughton  39:05

Well, those are great. That reminds me of the first accreditation visit I ever did. It was at a high school in California. The principal there was an incredible, incredible person. He had created a culture that was to die for. He had a saying, and I’ve remembered it to this day. “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”


Marie DeSanctis  39:29

100% true. I can tell you that people can smell inauthenticity in that regard from a mile away. Even you and I do, right? You can tell when somebody actually cares about you and when they’re just pretending. And pretending is just not going to cut it.


Drumm McNaughton  39:47

No, absolutely not. What’s next for you, Marie?


Marie DeSanctis  39:51

Gosh, I think surviving all these things I’m being very loud about. I’m running around the state of Colorado talking about the equivalency of credit and legislators saying, “But I thought we had a bill around that?” No, you have a bill that says they’ll transfer the credit, but here’s the game they’re playing, right? There are a lot of people not very happy with Marie DeSanctis right now for bringing this to the forefront. There are a whole lot of people right now who are not happy with the fact that I am questioning how a really impactful piece of legislation from last year that would have allowed community colleges to leverage the state of Colorado high school graduation guidelines to create our own pathway to high school graduation within the community college fell apart.


 A lot of school districts came in and said, “Oh, but they have to follow our structure for how it is you graduate from high school instead of making up their own based on the guidelines.” So we let the interests of school districts and superintendents stand in the way of the progress that we tried to make. So I’m being loud about a lot of really unpopular things. So what’s next for me is survival and trying not to get myself fired. But at the same time, I’m doing this in the name of what’s right and what’s right for being able to move the post-secondary attainment agenda, particularly for students of color. So if I get fired, I do have a real estate license in the state of Florida. I guess I’ll be selling houses by the beach. I don’t know.


Drumm McNaughton  41:21

Well, that’s not a bad job to have. But my sense is you’d be able to go back and become a superintendent as well.


Marie DeSanctis  41:28

I don’t know. I’m going to keep doing what’s right and keep saying what I think is right. Hopefully, I survive it.


Drumm McNaughton  41:35

I hope so as well. We need more folks like you who are willing to step up to the plate. Marie, thank you. This has been an incredible pleasure for me.


Marie DeSanctis  41:44

Drumm, it’s been an incredible pleasure for me as well. I really appreciate the opportunity to come on and hope that one or two things I said sparks an idea in somebody or at least helps someone feel supported to know that there’s another crazy college president out there trying to shake things up.


Drumm McNaughton  42:01

Very good. Well, add me to your list. Thank you. Take care.


Marie DeSanctis  42:05

All right. Bye-bye.


Drumm McNaughton  42:08

Thanks for listening. I’d like to give a special thank you to my guest, Dr. Marie DeSanctis, president of the Community College of Denver for sharing the steps higher ed must take to create new pathways to a college degree. Tune in next week when Eric Hogue, president of Colorado Christian University, joins us to talk about freedom of speech on campus and what presidents and boards can do to ensure we teach students to think critically about what they hear, not just tune it out when they don’t agree with it. Thanks for listening. Until next time.



Changing Higher Ed is a production of the Change Leader, a consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic and show notes on this episode at If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.




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