In this Oct. 2, 2015 photo, a student walks past the entrance to the Colorado School of Mines, a public research university devoted to engineering and applied science, in Golden. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

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Sabastian Ortega’s mom cried when he told her he was accepted to the Colorado School of Mines. He thought, as he talked to her on the phone, that she was crying tears of joy. She wasn’t. 

Instead, his mom worried about whether the family could help pay for school — tuition alone is about $17,500 a year for in-state students. And living on campus can cost about $40,000.

“It hit me hard,” Ortega said. “I ended up crying once I hung up because I was wondering, ‘How am I going to pay for this?’” He asked himself after that call: “What am I going to do?”

Thanks to a high school counselor, Ortega applied for numerous scholarships, eventually earning a full ride to Mines, a science and engineering school in Golden. But Ortega, 21 and now a junior, is one of a small number of low-income Coloradans who has found a place at Colorado’s most selective public university.

In 2020, Mines ranked 46th from the bottom among all public and private universities in the share of students on campus receiving Pell Grants, the federal aid awarded to students from low-income families, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by Education Reform Now. That was just 13.8% of the student body.

The school seems not to be progressing. In 2020, the most recent data available, just 13.4% of its 2020 freshman class had Pell Grants — slightly lower than the school as a whole, and the sixth lowest Pell enrollment rate in the country among public colleges, according to Education Reform Now. In comparison, Pell students represented 27% of the 2020 freshman class at all Colorado four-year universities. 

And Mines’ share of Pell students hasn’t changed much since 2015, when the school had the 15th lowest share of Pell students among four-year colleges across the country.

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Jason Gonzales is the Higher Education and Legislative Matters Reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado. Previously, he covered K-12 and higher education for The Tennessean and Brunswick County for the Wilmington Star News. He is a 2018 Education Writers...