Help with college

Denver sales tax hike for college scholarships defeated

Mayor Michael Hancock at a Yes on 2A kickoff event (Jon Murray, The Denver Post).

Denver voters Tuesday rejected a measure that would have raised taxes to subsidize college scholarships.

Final unofficial results showed voters rejected Measure 2A by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

The proposal was born out of concerns by some education and civic leaders that more needs to done to make college more affordable, particularly for lower-income and first-generation students.

That concern was heightened by the fact that state budget constraints make it virtually impossible for state government to increase its commitment to financial aid, which now totals about $125 million a year.

The Denver proposal took a different approach to financial aid than the traditional direct grants to students that are paid to colleges to offset students’ bill. The Denver College Affordability Fund was structured to funnel most of its money to non-profits like the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which provide scholarships to students.

The fund was set up to reimburse those non-profits for part of the scholarships they give, provided that the students stay in college and are successfully advancing. Nonprofits also would receive funding to support the counseling and support programs they provide to help students stay in college.

Higher education leaders increasingly believe that such support services are key to keeping students in college and advancing towards a degree.

“Literally billions of dollars are spent on kids who never graduate,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, referring to federal Pell Grant, a major source of financial aid nationwide. Garcia also is director of the state Department of Higher Education and a leading advocate for broadening access to higher education.

Garcia also has been involved in a state program called the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (COSI), which is structured in a fashion similar to the Denver proposal.

The lieutenant governor says such programs don’t exist elsewhere in the county and acknowledges they are experiments that may or may not have an impact.

Part of the experiment is encouraging other local communities to start similar programs. Garcia was asked about the problem of a Denver student having access to support while a similar student just across the city limits in Lakewood or Aurora doesn’t.

“What we want to see if Lakewood come up a program,” Garcia said. The goal is “to spark more community-based initiatives.”

Advocates also hope that providing even modest amounts of government funding to scholarship programs will inspire businesses and foundations to devote more funding to financial aid.

The Denver program would provide only a modest contribution to the state’s overall financial aid picture.

Colorado students receive about $2.1 billion in financial aid a year, according to the state higher education department. About half of that is loans, and about half of grants are provided by colleges and universities.

Asked about the size of unmet need, Garcia said the department has tried to estimate that but hasn’t been able to come up with a solid figure. Several years ago, the department looked into expanding the state’s aid program but concluded “there just wasn’t a pot of money anywhere big enough,” he said.

The campaign for 2A has been low-key and not focused on the intricacies of the plan. Some city council members and city Democratic leaders have opposed it, arguing that college financial aid isn’t a municipal responsibility.

Funded by $150,000 from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and money from other donors, a last-minute TV ad campaign launched last week to shore up support for the plan.

Details of 2A

  • Imposes a .08 percent increase in sales and use taxes to fund the Denver College Affordability Fund, to be administered by a seven-member appointed board.
  • Raises an estimated $10.6 million annually.
  • Revenue would be used for grants to non-profits for scholarships and support services. Some funds also would help students with loan repayment.
  • Program would sunset in 10 years
  • Eligible students would have to be three-year Denver residents attending non-profit or state colleges and be no older than 25. Recipients would have to maintain satisfactory
  • Eligibility determined on a sliding scale of family income.

More information on campaign website

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.