By Matt Watson
Travis Broxton took his first college course in 1969, the same year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Broxton completed seven semesters as a history major at Lincoln University but ultimately came a semester short of a college degree for financial reasons.
After taking college classes off and on throughout his long corporate career, the 72-year-old photographer will earn a bachelor’s degree in Art from Metropolitan State University of Denver in December. The degree will complete an academic journey that spanned seven decades – one giant leap made of many small steps.
“In whatever I do, I always like to complete what I start. This has taken a long time, but we’re finally crossing the finish line and it’s very fulfilling to do that,” said Broxton, who hopes to inspire his high-school-age daughter when he walks across the graduation stage Dec. 17. “It’s important for her to see that her parents are still pursuing education and how important education is.”
Broxton is one of about 680,000 Coloradans who left college without earning a degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Such students are the focus of a statewide push to reengage adult learners who stopped out of college as Colorado tries to meet its advanced workforce needs and counter the economic disruptions of the pandemic.
MSU Denver received a $5.7 million Finish What You Started grant from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative. The University intends to use that funding to recruit and serve adults with some college credit from MSU Denver or elsewhere but who have not been enrolled for the past two semesters. Half of the grant money will go directly to students in the form of scholarships.
The University plans to support 1,000 students over the next three years, starting with a $1,000 scholarship in each student’s first semester – roughly the equivalent of a free class. They will also receive additional aid throughout their time in school, access to emergency funds and an assigned pathway navigator and peer mentors to help them reengage in school and be successful.
Mary Sauceda, Ed.D., associate vice president of Enrollment Management at MSU Denver, said the extra support for students who are returning to the University or transferring in after taking time off will be a “game-changer.”
“It’s one thing to bring the student in through the door, but it’s another thing to support them throughout the entire process to ensure that they finish. And with this program, that is what we’re going to be able to do,” Sauceda said.
MSU Denver has an average undergraduate-student age of 25 and a long history of educating adult students. The majority of Roadrunners are transfer students as well, so the grant program reinforces an existing pipeline to the University with resources to better serve students, Sauceda said.
Megan Scherzberg, Ph.D., said national research has shown that students who make an early connection with a professor or staff member are more likely to remain and succeed in school. That can be a challenge for stopped-out students and transfer students, who are more likely to work or have families than students coming directly from high school.
“Transfer students come to campus ready to have a career-driven conversation. They’re ready to get connected to the faculty in their departments and start rolling,” said Scherzberg, director of MSU Denver’s Orientation, Transition and Retention Office, which will be renamed Orientation, Transfer and Re-engagement.
As the University hones its strategies to better serve students who have been out of school for a year or more, faculty members and administrators have been getting creative with ways to meet students where they are in their lives. That includes emphasis on providing college credit for work or military experience in the form of Prior Learning Assessments, using the Individualized Degree Program to help students create their own tailored degrees and offering classes outside of the standard fall/spring/summer semester windows.
“It’s possible we need to identify innovative and flexible structures as it relates to options for students, specifically adult learners, to complete degrees.” she said. “At the end of the day, the goal is to save students money and time and get them to degrees.”
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It’s a journey understood well by Broxton, who had stints at a Historically Black University in Pennsylvania and a Hispanic-Serving Institution in Colorado.
He embarked on a 30-year career in retail management and undertook a second career as a photographer, which began as a hobby supported by occasional classes at MSU Denver in the 1980s and ’90s.
He managed a Sears computer store when personal computers became available commercially, worked for a communications company at the advent of the cellular phone and became a full-time photographer when cameras went digital. Still, he always intended to finish his degree and took classes every semester after the Covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020.
As the most senior student in his Senior Experience Art class on his way to an Art degree with a photography emphasis, Broxton said he loves being around young people and has been inspired by his professors.
“Most of my classmates are 50 years younger than I am, so it’s great to see all their ideas and creativity,” he said. “One of the things about art and one of the things about photography is you’re always learning something new. You always want to go out and push the envelope.”
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