It’s no secret that college comes with a pretty hefty price tag. For the thousands of this spring’s college graduates who relied on federal loans to fund their pursuit of higher education, the six-month grace period—before 20 years of monthly payments begin—is rapidly coming to a close.
But there might be hope for Denver’s scholars. Measure 2A, the “College Affordability” sales tax on November’s ballot, would increase the city sales tax by .08 percent and funnel those funds into a pool of cash for students in need.
To draw from that pool, students would need to meet specific criteria: be 25 or younger, attend a public or nonprofit Colorado school, be a resident of Denver for at least three years, demonstrate financial need, and maintain a minimum GPA. The annual fund of about $10.6 million would back scholarships, provide support services for students, and even help pay back existing student loans.
The cost of college is a factor for nearly every postsecondary student. Less than half of Denver Public Schools’ high school graduates attend college the following September, and the overall graduation rate at DPS is already lower than the state average. That’s a lot of Denver kids cutting their education off after senior year, or before.
While those bleak numbers could be due to a slew of factors—job opportunities, poor grades, a variety of personal circumstances—affordability is the primary culprit for many prospective college students who decide against enrolling.
A year of study at the Community College of Denver, Colorado’s cheapest public school according to the U.S. Department of Education, costs about $8,184 for in-state students. The Centennial State’s most expensive nonprofit four-year school, the University of Denver, clocks in at an average annual cost of $29,362 (for financial aid recipients, after assistance). Numbers like these can send a bright 18-year-old running.
So, what can we do? Advocates for Measure 2A say the relatively small sales tax (less than a penny per $10 purchase) could help many Denver students living in poverty. But with a $4,000 annual cap per student, the discount might not be enough to entice a student with steep financial needs to start scheduling classes.
Naysayers argue that the exorbitant cost of higher education isn’t the city’s mess to clean up—and they’re right. The job of adequately funding public state colleges and universities falls on the state.
“It’s important for people to be able to afford college,” says City Councilwoman Mary Beth Susman, who spent 29 years working in higher education. “But Denver’s got potholes to fix, and storm sewers to build, and affordable housing needs. I just don’t know how much of the state’s responsibility we can take on.”
Meanwhile, state legislators continue to put higher education on the budgetary backburner: State funding for public colleges has dropped by 69 percent since 1980.
These trends might not be the cities’ doing, but it’s the cities that suffer the consequences of employable citizens. Today, only 46 percent of Colorado’s adult workforce has a two-year degree or higher, according to the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. By 2018, more than 68 percent of Colorado job openings are expected to require some extra classroom time. In fact, our state is expected to lead the nation in the number of job openings requiring postsecondary education—and many of those are sure to be in Denver.
Without more of today’s students pursuing an education after high school, those jobs could sit empty, stalling the economy—or, more likely, they’ll get snatched up by the many transplants moving here.
Come November 3, Denver voters will have to decide: Keep waiting for state officials to address the rising cost of higher education, or start fixing it themselves.