Angie Paccione, who earned a Ph.D. in education and human resource studies at CSU, is head of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. During the pandemic, she is problem-solving around the clock to support colleges, universities, and their students. Photo: Jesse Paul / The Colorado Sun

Angie Paccione is always dynamic – so much so, that people often ask where she gets her energy. But these days, she is in overdrive as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled Paccione into the eye of a storm of disruptions for higher education, an essential engine for quality of life and economic health in Colorado. As a top advocate for Colorado postsecondary schools, Paccione spends her days calling campus leaders, examining forecasts for higher education funding, and analyzing policy needs to help institutions and their students.

“These are uncharted waters,” said Paccione, who earned a Ph.D. in education and human resource studies at Colorado State University in 1998 and worked for a decade as a teacher educator in the CSU School of Education.

Gov. Jared Polis appointed Paccione chief of the Department of Higher Education, and she started in January 2019 as a member of his cabinet. Amid the coronavirus crisis, her job centers on two key responsibilities: understanding budgetary implications for higher education and potential barriers to attendance for students – and, then, representing their needs in the formation of state policies and laws.

“Dr. Paccione is a leader in this industry, and her commitment to Colorado students is unparalleled. Her expertise and dedication make her just the right person to lead Colorado’s Department of Higher Education,” Gov. Jared Polis said.

Her department works with more than 400 occupational schools, colleges, and universities; of these, about 30 are public institutions that rely on state funding for a portion of their budgets, including universities in the CSU System. Altogether, Colorado postsecondary schools annually serve some 400,000 students, with programs that confer everything from crane operator certifications to doctoral degrees in construction engineering and management.

Now and in calmer times, Paccione’s beacon is the same: promoting opportunities for students.

“It’s what I’ve always been about,” she said. “Our work in higher education is about activating everyone’s full potential, and the way to do that is to create opportunities for students – and also for students to say ‘yes’ to those opportunities. I’ve always been a person who has focused on, ‘What is possible? How can we make it work?’ That’s the right focus for this time.”

Paccione is a biracial woman who grew up immersed in African American culture in New York City, a background that gives her insights into educational access and equity, two of her focal areas. She was a star basketball player at Stanford University, with a double major in political science and psychology; she graduated with honors in 1983. After a run in professional basketball, Paccione moved to Colorado for a career that has included work as a high school teacher, coach, and administrator; a university professor; a Colorado state legislator; and a consultant in leadership and organizational development.

“Angie has it all – she really has a complete perspective,” said Blanche Hughes, CSU vice president for student affairs, who worked with Paccione on campus in the 1990s. “She understands the whole realm of education and, on top of that, really understands how diversity and inclusion must be incorporated into everything we do.”

Paccione’s agency carries out policies on a range of academic and funding issues. This gives her a central role in promoting the needs of higher education – and students – to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, state lawmakers, and the governor. She has contributed to a higher education master plan, called Colorado Rises: Advancing Education and Talent Development, designed to improve opportunities for students while advancing the workforce and invigorating the state economy.

During the pandemic, Paccione’s role has markedly intensified, as postsecondary schools, students, and their families face untold financial challenges. For public colleges and universities, these challenges include anticipated hits to state funding and other revenue sources. The federal government has pledged more than $14 billion in coronavirus stimulus funds for higher education; much of the support is for emergency grants to college students in need. That leaves colleges and universities, which are significant employers in their communities, with many uncertainties and risks.

Lynn Bartels, a widely respected political columnist in Denver, reported on Paccione when she represented Fort Collins in the Colorado House of Representatives from 2003 to 2007. Paccione served two terms on the House Education Committee and rose to House majority caucus chair. Bartels covered that legislative work and, in a recent column in Colorado Politics, described Paccione’s skills and commitment. “Here’s to the students, faculty, and staff going through all this,” Bartels wrote, referring to the pandemic. “And here’s to Angie Paccione, for working around the clock to make sure Colorado comes out as well as it can.”

Paccione said she maintains a sense of optimism arising from her experiences and her Christian faith. Her personalized license plates proclaim “First1,” reflecting her path.

In 1976, as a high schooler, she tried out for the first U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team; she didn’t make the Olympic squad, but her showing kicked off years of play on national, college, and pro women’s basketball teams, which took her around the world. Paccione also was a first-generation college student. She attended Stanford as the first African American woman to earn a full-ride athletics scholarship. Later, she became a teacher and administrator at Smoky Hill High School, in the Cherry Creek School District, and was the first woman to coach boys varsity high school basketball in Colorado’s 5A class. After she entered politics, Paccione became the first African American woman to fill the role of majority caucus chair in the state House of Representatives.

These firsts and others inspire and energize Paccione in her quest to help Colorado’s college students. “I’m as committed to students’ success as I am to my own,” she said. “That’s what gives me energy. I don’t want to let them down.”