Free tuition could fuel dreams for students

Author: - January 2, 2010 - Updated: January 2, 2010


Higher education funding in Colorado is problematic. We all know that.

My oldest son is a high school senior. We’ve been told that his class will face the tightest funding ever, in terms of access to financial aid. He will go to college, though, and somehow it will be paid for.

He’s lucky because he was born into a family that takes going to college for granted. That doesn’t mean we are rich. It just means that both of his parents went to college and have jobs they love that they would not have if they hadn’t gone to college. Going to college, in the end, may have as much to do with expectations as with ability or desire.

In some families, the parents can only dream and pray their kids will be able to go to college. I’m not faulting them, but it will be that limited expectation that holds them back as much as money. Kids who believe that going to college is primarily for the wealthy, the gifted, the lucky, may form other plans as a hedge against high expectations. They may let the fact that they don’t know how they are going to pay for it stop them from even applying. They may accept the fact that getting a job — any job — is the best they can hope for in life.

In still other families, there are not even dreams of college. College is scoffed at as elitist. Those kids are saddled with even lower expectations.

It’s the kids in those two groups that the State of Colorado has to change things for. My kids will go to college. Your kids will probably go to college. The children of your favorite or least favorite legislator will go to college. A little help would be nice, sure. But they’re going, regardless.

What about the rest? How do we rise up first to help them create the expectation and then to make the whole idea of college less daunting?

I spent a few minutes this week with Rico Munn, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. He told me Colorado does a lousy job of graduating minority students from high school and getting them into college with the skills they need to succeed there.

“Our achievement gap is deplorable,” he said.

He told me he is committed to working with kids nearly from the time they are born so that they can see what the path to college looks like and understand that it can
be taken.

Munn also paraphrased President Barack Obama, saying that, to some extent, “we are all prisoners of our own biographies.”

The thing is, to a great extent, we create our own biographies. My parents did not encourage me to go to college. My wife’s parents discouraged her — she was taking a place that belonged to a boy, after all. She ended up earning a master’s and a law degree without taking a dime from Mom and Dad.

I’m convinced that money prevents almost no one from going to college. It’s the idea of not being able to afford it that keeps people from even trying. In some cases, the idea that they aren’t going to college anyway probably stops kids from taking the hard college-prep classes in high school, stops them from even trying to earn As and Bs. By the time they figure out that they even want to go to college, they may feel like it is too late.

Community colleges are there for kids like that. I know because I was one of those kids. I knew I would go to college eventually, but I didn’t even apply when I was in high school. I had the attitude that any college that would be so shallow as to care about my grades or test scores didn’t
deserve me.

A year and a half or so after high school, while working in a snowstorm as part of a crew building a custom house, I decided manual labor was not really my thing. I applied to the University of Oregon and was accepted. I applied to the University of Washington and was told if I took the ACT and took two semesters of foreign language at a community college, I could apply again and probably get in. My employer at the time offered me a free apartment a short walk from a Seattle-area community college, and I jumped on it.

Here’s a challenge for Dick Monfort, Jim Lyons, Rico Munn and the rest of the governor’s new higher-ed commission: Make one community college in the system totally free. If tuition were raised by even a few percentage points at the rest of the community colleges, it probably would be a wash, financially.

Why make one college free? Because it is simple and easily understood, unlike the myriad of financial aid plans and forms. If every kid in the state knew that Front Range Community College was free, then every kid in the state would know they could go to college if they worked hard enough.

The only catch is that that one college would have to be very selective, because it would be overwhelmed with applicants. That’s OK. It gives kids something to shoot for. It raises the academic bar at one community college practically to the university level. Also, every kid who applies and doesn’t get in could be assigned to a financial aid counselor to help them figure out where they can go and how they can pay for it. It takes that burden off of the families that may not have a clue because they’ve never done it before. Likewise, applicants who are obviously CU material could be counseled to raise their sights and shown how to accomplish that. Kids from too far away to easily attend the one free college could be given grants to help them at a different college.

There is a lot more to this than money. I have talked to families who have never in many generations had a college student, and they don’t know where to begin. They are afraid their dreams will be scoffed at. They don’t have the confidence to tell a high school counselor they want to go to college. It might sound silly to you and me, but it’s real. We have a gap to bridge, and it is as much psychological as it is financial.

I know there are things I haven’t thought of. I know this idea has problems. I also know my son has applied to several free colleges — not primarily because they are free, but because they are great colleges. They are great because by being free, they can be highly selective.

Right now, I know that any kid who really wants to can find a way to go to college. Problem is, the kids in question don’t always know it.

It is up to us to point the way. Our future depends on it.

— Scot@coloradostatesman.com