The Colorado state Capitol in an April 2019 file photo. (Mark Harden, The Colorado Sun)

For the more than 300,000 Coloradans who lost jobs within the past year, many are left to consider what retraining and skills they need to get back into the workforce. 

Similarly, current college students face difficult decisions and are at risk of dropping out, citing a loss of child care, employment, or the need to care for family. 

Top row: Colorado state Reps. Shannon Bird and Cathy Kipp. Bottom row: State Sens. Barbara Kirkmeyer and Rachel Zenzinger.

To get these Coloradans back to work or school, Senate Bill 232 in the Colorado legislature would invest $15 million in the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI), a scholarship program for eligible post-secondary students attending a state public institution.

The program grows community efforts and engages private donors to increase available dollars well beyond the state investment. Since its inception, COSI has used $77 million of state general-fund dollars to leverage another $35 million in local private philanthropic dollars. By reaching students from a range of socio-economic classes, COSI supports in their ongoing efforts to graduate.

National research suggests that a student’s decision to re-enroll (or remain) in post-secondary education isn’t just about financial ability. 

In our state, COSI has demonstrated that having a person available to guide students — including mental health, hunger, housing and academic progress — can help students stay enrolled through graduation. Data show that students who have this specialized counselor to supplement a scholarship complete their programs at a rate of 92%.

Last spring, COSI quickly responded to the effects of COVID-19 by creating the Back to Work grant. The program focuses on workers displaced by the pandemic and supports Coloradans with some college credit but no degree. COSI has already committed $900,000 in collaborative grants to institutions of higher education, community partners and workforce centers.

The program focuses on certification and degree programs that align with Colorado’s top jobs, so individuals can achieve their credentials within the next two years. 

This year, COSI hopes to expand the reach of the program and provide important scholarship funding alongside support for up to 3,000 students. The expansion provides support for infrastructure grants to colleges to build and scale high-impact programs aligned with the areas where we see the largest job growth.

Colorado Mountain College, one of the first Back to Work recipients, is a year into the two-year grant and has nearly met its enrollment target. The college serves more than 12,000 square miles of diverse rural mountain communities, home to Colorado’s ski resorts.

The program successfully represents the communities and their needs. Participants are Colorado’s front-line, essential workers who were terminated or furloughed but are now back to work. 

Of the more than 100 students enrolled in the program, the majority are eligible because of job termination, reduced hours, reduced pay, or furlough in industries that were eliminated or are not expected to come back at the same rate. More than 62% of the participants are the first in their family to go to college.

As sponsors of SB 232, we ask that our colleagues in the House support this important bill, which received unanimous support in the Senate. COSI has proven to use existing infrastructure and program models to scale and help Coloradans get back to work. 

Colorado state Reps. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, and Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, and state Sens. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, and Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, are prime sponsors of Senate Bill 232.

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Cathy Kipp, of Fort Collins, represents District 52 in the Colorado House of Representatives.