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GovernorJared Polis signing Colorado’s state budget

The recent promise program bill isn’t the only way Governor Jared Polis has supported higher education this year. He also signed a state budget in April, pictured here, which increased spending by $134.9 million, or about 10 percent.

Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Colorado governor Jared Polis signed a bill last week that establishes a state-level promise program to cover tuition and fees for up to two years at trade schools and community colleges, as well as four-year institutions—a rare provision in such plans.

The bill, called the Incentives for Post-Secondary Education, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. It creates the Colorado Promise: Two Free Years of College Expanded, which uses a last-dollar tax credit—instead of grants or up-front subsidies—to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for up to 65 credits for all students in good standing with a household income of $90,000 or less. Scheduled to go into effect next fall, the new plan augments existing promise programs offered by individual institutions, which generally cover one year’s worth of credits with an income cap of $60,000 to $70,000.

Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, cheered the bill’s passage, noting that the state has been working toward it for the last five years and that it aids the Democratic governor’s larger goals of investing in college affordability and workforce development.

“Governor Polis, his whole campaign, in fact, his whole political life, has talked about a ‘Colorado for all’ and so this is a way to make college for all,” Paccione said. “It’s not just for community college. It’s not just for the lowest of low income … If you’re making less than $90,000, you should have access to any program at any public institution of higher ed.”

Representative Rick Taggart, a Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, called it “a major step in the right direction” for a state where the population is growing, postsecondary education is becoming increasingly necessary and yet college enrollment is stagnant or declining.

According to the 2023 Talent Pipeline Report, 85 percent of the state’s “Tier 1 Jobs”—those that provide a stable enough income to support a family of three—require a bachelor’s degree. Yet enrollment across all 28 public postsecondary institutions in fall 2023 remained stagnant, even though the state’s population increased about 0.6 percent last year.

The Colorado Promise expands on promise programs offered by institutions, which generally have been low-cost, since they primarily target the lowest income students, whose college costs are largely covered by federal Pell grants and other state-level need-based aid. Many of those programs have also been limited to community and technical colleges or high-demand workforce pathways.

The new expansion comes with a larger annual price tag of about $40 million, but Taggart said it’s an investment worth making.

“The families that are really caught in a bind with college education today are the moderate-income families,” he said. “Pell Grants go away somewhere in the $65,000 range. And so those folks carry the entire burden. I wanted it to be as broad based as possible, and to give students and families all the options that are available.”

To Katie Zaback, vice president of policy at Colorado Succeeds, a business coalition that focuses on education policy and implementation, giving students the ability to choose which institution to attend is an admirable hallmark of Colorado’s new program.

Another difference between Colorado Promise and other free tuition programs, such as MassReconnect in Massachusetts or the Free College scholarship in Maine, is that the Rocky Mountain state’s program is based on tax credits instead of subsidies. This was done to comply with the state’s unique Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and means the funding comes from—and returns directly to—taxpayers’ pockets rather than being pulled from general funds.

“This is a really innovative way to use those tax credits to help make college more affordable for students,” Zaback said. “The big challenge is that students have to pay up front in order to be able to get those tax credits. But I think that the state did a lot when they built the system to mitigate some of those challenges.”

Both Taggart and Paccione said they hoped this doesn’t mark the end of state aid expansion. Depending on the program’s outcomes and tax revenue trends, Taggart said he’d like to see the income cap reach as high as $150,000 in the coming years. And Paccione said it would be “wonderful” if the state could make all four years of college free.

“We’re trying to balance a budget at the same time as making college more affordable to as many students as we possibly can in the state,” Taggart said. “Next year, we’ll get back at it and see if we can improve upon it. But it’s a step, and I’m pleased to do this much.”

The program could have stretched its funds to cover all four years or create a higher income cap if it offered different amounts of coverage based on a sliding scale, Taggart said, but he considers the 100 percent coverage model best because it is likely to increase not only enrollment but also completion.

Taggart has a personal stake in the matter: the representative also serves as an adjunct business professor at Colorado Mesa University. One of the hardest parts of his job, he said, is watching students drop out part way through their program with some college credit but no degree.

“There’s nothing more disappointing to me than to see a student go to school for a year and not have something concrete,” he said. Providing two years of full coverage gives students what they need to at least finish a certificate or associate degree. “In addition to that, my observation of a baccalaureate is that if we get them through their sophomore years, they can now see the end in sight,” he added. “They’ll figure out how to finish.”

The bill includes a caveat that ensures any credits from dual enrollment, advanced placement or international baccalaureate courses, or prior learning programs will not be factored into the 65-credit cap. “We encourage students to complete their associate’s while they’re in high school,” Paccione said. “So they could actually end up getting a full bachelor’s degree for free.”

Paccione also hopes that the new program will encourage fewer students to go out-of-state for college—nearly a third do currently—and that more will fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms—a task which is required to be eligible for tuition reimbursement.

Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, said that people in his community are generally excited about the program and pleased that the legislation passed. He noted that it is more “moderate” and feasible than some original proposals, which were presented by four-year institutions and had no income cap.

“We were concerned that it simply wouldn’t pass. We wanted something that would pass and that would help students with lower family incomes,” he said. “We thought something more limited might make sense, and the governor did, too. He really believed that there was some real potential here if we focused on those first two years of college.”

The bigger concern now, Garcia said, is educating students and families about the program’s more complicated tax credit process.

“It’s not money up front. It’s more like a tuition reimbursement program from an employer,” he said. “Now, we think that’s good, because it will help reduce student debt loads, but it’s a little bit complicated to explain to students who will still have to apply for their Pell Grant and pay their tuition up front. Only after they’ve completed those educational credits, [and filed a tax return] will they get money back.”

Since the program is open to four-year degree programs, some have expressed worry that community college enrollment could decline. But Garcia shrugged off such fears.

“We’re always concerned about enrollment,” he said, adding that the real worry is that without aid, students won’t attend any college at all.

A recent study from the Lumina Foundation found that Colorado has the country’s highest state postsecondary credential attainment level for those over 25—about 63 percent. But the rate of immediate enrollment for high school graduates is not as high; according to the state Department of Education, only about 50 percent of high school graduates in 2024 have enrolled or will enroll in some form of higher education, compared to about 60 percent five years ago.

“We want students to go to school,” Garcia said. “We would love to have them come to community college, but if they choose to go to a four-year, well, that’s fine, too.”

(This article has been updated to reflect that Colorado is not the only state to use its promise program to cover students attending four-year institutions.)

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