Free college, $1,500 scholarships proposed to fill in-demand Colorado jobs

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Gold Dome of the State Capitol, framed by winter trees.

More than 20,000 Coloradans would be eligible for free education in high-demand fields and another 15,000 students from the Class of 2024 would be eligible for scholarships to get training in the toughest to fill jobs, under two bipartisan proposals backed by Gov. Jared Polis.

The proposals build on a program launched last year to offer up to two years of free college for Coloradans pursuing health care jobs. Already more than 2,000 students have enrolled, and leaders hope that with ongoing investment, they can reach many more. 

“For every job-seeking person in Colorado, we need to get them the skills to match the amazing opportunities that our economy provides,” Polis said.

In the short term, the proposal expands on Colorado’s system of free college options and the scholarships add to state-funded aid that help offset costs beyond high school. 

Long term, however, there’s little guarantee future students will have the same opportunities, with only one-time money set aside for the proposals.

During a news conference, Polis didn’t commit to extending funding when it runs out. He also said he expects lawmakers to review which sectors need workers and to adjust programs to steer students into those fields. 

One $40 million proposal would make a two-year community college credential free in fields like elementary education, firefighting, policing, forestry, nursing and construction. The state would use one-time money this year to fund the program for two years.

Colorado has shortages in those jobs. Some of the fields have low starting salaries, making it difficult to attract workers. But they’re also jobs that have high social value.

Polis said making the programs free will help attract students.

He said, “these are all professions that pay better than the unskilled workforce.”

For fields like teaching that require a four-year degree, the free college program would give students a way to get started on their education and save part of the cost.

Lawmakers want the program to benefit over 20,000 Coloradans during the next two years. 

The program would cover the cost of enrollment plus books, supplies, and fees. 

The program would also cover any costs for training for apprenticeships in areas like the construction trades, including instructor time and instructional materials.

The bill is sponsored by House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, state Rep. Rose Pugliese, a Colorado Springs Republican, and state Sens. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, and Perry Will, a New Castle Republican.

The second proposal would give scholarships to about a quarter of the graduating high school students in the Class of 2024. 

The state would provide 15,000 graduating students a roughly $1,500 scholarship each if they train or study for high-demand fields such as health care, manufacturing, engineering, education, or behavioral and mental health.

The state already provides financial aid to most students who go to a community college or public university. But students could use the scholarship to pursue a wider range of options, including for an apprenticeship or on-the-job training.

Bill sponsors include Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, and Reps. Matthew Martinez, a Monte Vista Democrat, and Don Wilson, a Monument Republican.

Unlike some states that offer free two-year college — such as Tennessee or Washington —  Colorado has a patchwork of options for students to get free training or earn college credit.

For example, Colorado high school students can earn a certificate in a high-demand field before they graduate. Students can also get college credit while in high school or take a fifth year of high school that offers college credit and is paid for by the state.

And last year’s Care Forward Colorado program has shown promise toward expanding free college for at least some fields.

Last year, Polis and lawmakers pushed for free training in health care fields, a proposal that created the Care Forward program with $26 million in one-time federal pandemic relief aid.

The program under the Colorado Community College System has enrolled over 2,000 students at a cost of about $6.1 million, according to system numbers. About 1,000 students have graduated in the first year from the community college system, according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Student participation has varied across the state’s 13 colleges, with some schools enrolling over 500 students and others enrolling less than 100. The programs include pharmacy technician, nurse’s aide, and dental assistant programs. 

Colorado Community College System Chancellor Joe Garcia said the expanded program would include money to market the free college programs. He said the state is collecting data on how the program serves students to someday make the case why these programs might need more funding.

For now, the goal has been to ensure students can get job skills, work, and then go back to the community college system if they want to expand their knowledge — and eventually earn more money.

“You don’t just finish your education and go to a job,” Garcia said. “It’s in stages.”

That’s how Karlie Asman, 23, said it’s worked for her under the Care Forward Colorado program. 

She said she got her EMT certification last year thanks to the program. She now works part time and volunteers in Franktown to get experience. And she’s back in school again thanks to Care Forward in a paramedic preparation program, which will allow her to take on an expanded role in the health care field as well as earn more money.

She added that thanks to Care Forward she doesn’t have to worry about putting her money toward college costs and instead can focus on earning a living. 

“It’s been a huge, huge blessing for me,” Asman said.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at [email protected].