Students walk down a staircase at Denver's CEC Early College.

The Making Higher Education Attainable Interim Study Committee on Monday signed off on three proposals to get students successfully through higher ed institutions, even before they step foot on campus.

A bill passed unanimously would direct the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to incorporate work experience into post-secondary academic credit.

“It’s helping people who have decided a little later in life that they would like to go to college but aren’t sure if they can get in and go,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango. “This helps give them credit for work experience that belongs to what they would like to get their degree in, and any kind of certificates they have along the way.”

The policies must prioritize career and technical education in fast-growing industries. The new system honoring work experience is anticipated to take effect after 2024. McLachlan’s bill did not estimate the cost to colleges and universities, nor does it appropriate money to them.

A second bill from Sen. Tammy Story, D-Conifer, would appropriate $20 million annually for a pilot program in the Department of Higher Education. The state would give grants to institutions with plans to decrease barriers to completing postsecondary education and boosting their number of graduates.

While Story called it a “bold investment,” Rep. Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, voted against the bill out of concern for the price of the grants. 

“I really don’t believe that grant funding is a good substitute for adequate ongoing sustained investment in our public institutions of higher education,” added Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins.

However, she and the rest of the committee approved the bill 4-1.

A final bill boosted funding to the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative by $5 million, bringing the annual appropriation to $12 million. COSI, authorized in 2014, augments the tuition assistance students receive using various sources, and serves approximately 6,000 students per year.

The bill, from Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, removes the restriction on aid given directly to government agencies.

“Many of the colleges and universities that we work with have their own foundations that work with the financial aid offices that disburse student scholarships,” said the Arvada Democrat. “What this allows us to do is to work through those foundations themselves.”

Her bill advanced unanimously.

Lawmakers also pulled five bills from consideration. Story withdrew a proposal to create a $150,000 grant to higher ed institutions to adopt informational programs about student debt. 

Kipp withdrew her own debt bill, which would have established a state tax deduction for student loan debt at one-quarter of the federal rate. It would have cost the state approximately $4.5 million in revenue annually.

“The revenue amounts with our current state budget and the way things are going, I'm concerned about,” she said before spiking the legislation.

Another proposal of Kipp’s would have added information to existing K-12 financial literacy curricula about the costs of and potential means to finance a college education.

Two other bills will attempt to pass the General Assembly outside of the committee's recommendations. McLachlan proposed creating a grant program to students experiencing financial emergency, whereas Zenginer and Baisley proposed adding a goal of increased postsecondary graduations to the School Counselor Corps Grant Program, a statewide counselor funding initiative.

“So many of our college and university students get partway through their degree program and do not complete and they end up worse off than they started,” Baisley said. “They end up with student debt and not a degree to go help work off that debt. That grant program funds the counselors to ensure that [students] complete their degree program and to encourage them in every way.”

A report to the legislature in 2019 found that of the students who enrolled in college in 2014, only 41% of women and 31% of men earned a degree in four years.

Committee members supported the Zenzinger-Baisley bill, but felt it would easily pass the General Assembly because there was no listed cost to the state.

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