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Department of Higher Education chief Angie Paccione listens as Gov. Jared Polis speaks at an event unveiling a study about outcomes of students who attend state colleges and universities. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The rising cost of a college education is a roadblock for many Colorado students, but the state’s higher education leaders are pledging to expand the possibility of getting a college degree using a new “roadmap” focused on affordability.

Colorado universities and community colleges are “really the best tool we have to create opportunity for Coloradans, to give our state’s residents a chance to get ahead and thrive and really succeed and live the Colorado way of life,” Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday as he and other leaders revealed a plan they say will help put a degree back within the financial reach of most students.

“The cost of higher education has gone up at a rate significantly higher than the rate of inflation,” said Polis, a Democrat. “Costs have spiraled out of control and that has made it harder for many families to achieve that Colorado dream, and students and families are concerned across our state and want reassurance they’re getting value for their investment.”

The roadmap includes short-, medium- and long-range plans to make college more affordable and accessible at a time when the Colorado Department of Higher Education reports that 43% of Colorado’s adult population has not completed education beyond high school.

While part of the plan aims to pull more students into a higher-education track, another component stresses getting students across the graduation stage with a degree or certificate in hand.

The plan arrives as institutions still are recovering from the Great Recession, when they suffered significant cuts, according to Angie Paccione, executive director of the higher ed department.

Shove Chapel at Colorado College. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Netting dollars from the removal of state spending limits under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights would have helped, Paccione said.  But Proposition CC, which would have done away with those caps, failed in last week’s election.

The one-time approximate $116 million that would have been directed to higher education over the next two years would have potentially enabled the state to freeze in-state tuition, as it did last year, and pass substantial savings onto students, Paccione said. 

Instead, Polis’ presented a budget plan to state lawmakers on Wednesday that calls for those tuition costs to rise an average of 3%. 

Now, the state is committed to opening up other ways for students to save on the price tag of their education.

Here are four policies Colorado’s higher education leaders are pursuing to make college more affordable:

MORE: In-state tuition at Colorado universities could rise up to 3% on average under governor’s budget plan

Curb textbook costs

Like other states, Colorado is looking to ease the cost of textbooks and course materials for students through a “Z-Degree” challenge led by Polis – meaning zero dollars spent on textbooks and course materials.

Through open educational resources, known as OER, academic programs could eliminate the need for hard copy textbooks by getting professors and instructors to transition to free online class materials.

Folsom Field at the University of Colorado in Boulder is just one of the major construction projects as the campus has continued to grow. (Doug Conarroe, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The savings on average add up to between $5,000 and $6,000 over the course of a four-year degree, Paccione said.

The state has developed an ongoing mini-grant program through which it is awarding funds to professors, learning specialists, librarians and other campus staff to help them transition to free textbooks, she said. An OER Council is assisting professors with the transition.

The state hopes many programs, particularly at the community college level, will start moving toward the Z-Degree, Paccione said.

Firm up partnerships between two- and four-year institutions

Paccione, in particular, is eager to form stronger partnerships between two- and four-year institutions, pointing to the Aims2UNC program that creates a more direct path between the completion of an associate’s degree and the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

When students are accepted into the Aims2UNC program, they concentrate on completing a two-year degree at Aims Community College but are also accepted into the University of Northern Colorado as a non-degree seeking student, according to UNC’s website.

The program integrates freshmen Aims students into UNC’s culture as they’re given a student ID, which gives them access to on-campus amenities such as recreation centers, and can live in dorms. The program also promises coaching for students, including making sure courses taken at Aims are transferrable to UNC.

Paccione wants to replicate this kind of bridge program at institutions across the state so that students can “have a line of sight” to a bachelor’s degree, which is what the economy is demanding.

Granting lower-income students free tuition

Polis also touted Fort Lewis College’s “Tuition Promise” program, which “allows every (in-state) student from families making under $60,000 a year to attend Fort Lewis tuition free.”

Polis touched on a similar free tuition program at Colorado College for students from families making $60,000 or less annually – part of an experiment at the private school called the “Colorado Pledge.”

MORE: At Colorado College, where tuition runs $71,000, many new in-state students will pay just a fraction — or nothing at all

Fort Lewis College implemented its free tuition benefit this fall and anticipates about 300 students qualifying in the next academic year, according to President Tom Stritikus. The program is available to new students and to those already enrolled in the Durango college.

The program is supported by a combination of federal funds, state funds and institutional funds “to fund any gaps that exist,” Stritikus said.

Addressing the cost of health care

Additionally, the state is interested in lowering health care costs for institutions of higher education. “They are large employers, too,” Polis said.

The governor drew attention to the alliance model, in which employers negotiate health insurance for employees by teaming up and negotiating directly with doctors and hospitals instead of accepting the prices insurance companies negotiate for them.

“We want to invite our school districts and our institutions of higher education to participate in the statewide alliance model, which we believe will save them 5 to 10%, if not more, on health care costs for their employees,” Polis said.

Basic health care costs increasing above the rate of inflation have been a pressure that has resulted in a spike in tuition and costs, he said.

Correction: This story was updated Nov. 14, 2019, at 4:52 p.m. to clarify that the state’s open educational resources mini-grant program will fund educators’ transition to free textbooks.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...