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Two Years of Free College: Governor Polis Signs Bill Establishing Colorado Promise

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In a significant move toward making higher education more accessible, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a bill last week that establishes the Colorado Promise.

This new initiative offers two free years of college for qualifying students, covering tuition and fees for up to 65 credits at trade schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions. The bipartisan-supported bill, named the Incentives for Post-Secondary Education, aims to address college affordability and workforce development in the state.

Governor Polis Signs Bill Establishing Colorado Promise for Two Free Years of College

(Photo : WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / The White House)

Expanding Access to Higher Education

The Colorado Promise: Two Free Years of College Expanded program stands out for its inclusive approach. Unlike many existing promise programs that are limited to one year of tuition coverage and often target the lowest income students, the Colorado Promise broadens the scope. The program is designed to benefit students from households with incomes of $90,000 or less, significantly raising the eligibility threshold from the typical $60,000 to $70,000 cap seen in other initiatives.

Scheduled to take effect next fall, the program uses a last-dollar tax credit model instead of traditional grants or up-front subsidies. This innovative approach ensures that 100 percent of tuition and fees are covered for qualifying students, making higher education more attainable for a larger segment of the population. Angie Paccione, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, commended the bill's approval, emphasizing that it supports Governor Polis's goal of making Colorado inclusive and accessible to everyone. 

Paccione stated that Governor Polis has always pushed for college accessibility for all, not just for community college students or those from the lowest income groups. She emphasized that individuals with an income below $90,000 should have access to any public higher education program. 

READ MORE: Colorado Legislation Sets New Standard For College Credit Transfer Efficiency, Could Inspire Nationwide Reform 

Bipartisan Support and Long-Term Goals

The bill's passage with overwhelming bipartisan support reflects a shared recognition of the importance of postsecondary education in Colorado's future. Representative Rick Taggart, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, emphasized that the initiative is a major step in addressing the state's educational and economic needs. With the population growing and the demand for higher education increasing, the Colorado Promise aims to reverse stagnant or declining college enrollment trends.

According to the 2023 Talent Pipeline Report, 85 percent of the state's "Tier 1 Jobs"-those offering a stable income to support a family of three-require a bachelor's degree. Despite this, enrollment across Colorado's 28 public postsecondary institutions remained stagnant in fall 2023, even as the state's population grew. Taggart sees the new program as a crucial investment in the state's future.

"The families struggling the most with college costs are those with moderate incomes," Taggart said. "Pell Grants taper off around $65,000, leaving many families to shoulder the full burden. This program aims to provide broad-based support, offering students and families more options."

Katie Zaback, vice president of policy at Colorado Succeeds, echoed this sentiment, noting the program's flexibility in allowing students to choose their institution. She also highlighted the unique funding mechanism, which complies with Colorado's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights by using tax credits instead of subsidies.

Implementation and Future Prospects

As the Colorado Promise gears up for implementation, there are both excitement and challenges. Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, noted the positive reception within the community, emphasizing the program's feasibility and focus on the first two years of college.

Garcia noted that the primary challenge now is informing students and families about how the tax credit process works. He explained that it's akin to a tuition reimbursement program, requiring students to pay tuition upfront and then receive reimbursement after finishing their educational credits and submitting a tax return.

The program also includes provisions to ensure that credits from dual enrollment, advanced placement, or prior learning programs do not count toward the 65-credit cap. This encourages students to complete their associate degrees while in high school, potentially earning a bachelor's degree for free.

Looking forward, Taggart and Paccione are optimistic about future expansions. They aim to increase the income cap and potentially cover all four years of college, contingent on the program's success and tax revenue trends. 

Taggart explained that they are working to manage the budget while ensuring college affordability for a wide range of students. He mentioned plans to review and possibly enhance the program next year, considering it a significant advancement for now. 

The Colorado Promise represents a bold move to enhance educational opportunities and workforce development in the state, providing much-needed support for students and families navigating the financial challenges of higher education.

RELATED ARTICLE: Colorado Lawmakers Set To Boost Funding For Education And Healthcare In State Budget Plan 

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