Denver voters earlier this month approved raising the city’s sales tax by 0.08 percent to fund post-secondary scholarships for local students up to age 25.
The tax hike is estimated to generate $14 million next year, some of which could flow to the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which gives need-based college scholarships to Denver Public Schools students. Most of the students who receive help are students of color, come from low-income families, and are the first in their families to go to college.
The foundation has given out $38 million in scholarships since 2006 to more than 6,300 Denver students who attend technical colleges, community colleges, and universities in the state.
The tax increase, known as Initiated Ordinance 300, was trailing in initial vote counts on Election Day. But after all ballots were tallied, it passed with 52 percent of the vote. It sets up a new nonprofit that will partially reimburse scholarship foundations for the scholarships they give out if the students who receive them stay in school or graduate.
We sat down with Denver Scholarship Foundation CEO Lorii Rabinowitz to talk about it. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The election tally was a bit of a nailbiter. Did you ever lose hope?
I did not lose hope. I will tell you we’re so fortunate to have so many wonderful, kind supporters and partners in this work, and we did receive a fair number of, “I’m so sorry. I was more hopeful.” And I said, “Well, we’re not giving up hope yet!”
I know the Denver Scholarship Foundation has been around 12 years. What’s the financial health of the foundation?
The financial health is good. I think it gives us the opportunity, with the passage of 300, to think about even more innovative ways to scale and to reach more students and to help us provide even deeper wraparound services and success supports.
What do you mean by wraparound services?
It’s everything from advising to general thought partnership on life: How to balance work and school. “Should I do a work-study versus an off-site job?” “Should I live on campus? Should I live off campus?” Different family circumstances. Transportation circumstances. “My financial aid hasn’t come through. Can you help me outreach to the financial aid office?”
The definition [of wraparound services] in 300 is everything including advising, tutoring, mentoring, career advising. So it really runs the gamut of services that can be provided to students once in college to help them be as successful as possible.
How will the funds from 300 be used?
Organizations like Denver Scholarship Foundation that provide scholarships and wraparound supports to Denver residents will be eligible for reimbursement. So we make the investment in the students up front. As students demonstrate success, then the nonprofits apply for reimbursement through this fund and are reimbursed up to 75 percent.
Through taxpayer support, we have the chance for all Denver residents to invest in our future. And the return on investment is super solid. In the Denver Scholarship Foundation, 78 percent of [our] students are persisting or have graduated [from college].
Are you thinking that the fact that the reimbursement exists will spur more people to make an investment? Because it sounds like you’ll still have to raise money up front.
Yes. Ideally, it will help spur investment up front and heighten the importance of what we can all do to bring arms around for student success.
So this will expand the number of students you can serve?
Absolutely. At DSF, we’re promise-based. So any student who meets our criteria receives our scholarship. We awarded 1,834 scholarships last year.
For a student pursuing an associate degree, it’s $1,400 a year. It’s $1,700 a year for a student pursuing a certificate. It’s $2,800 a year for a student pursuing a bachelor’s. Bachelor’s are renewable up to four years, associate up to two. That’s part of the promise.
Is there one student story that stands out to you from the past year?
We featured a young woman named Mena Hashim at our gala a month or so ago. She and her family came to the United States from Iraq when she was 12 after her mom had been kidnapped. I mean, her story was incredible.
So she came to the United States, didn’t yet speak English, went through eighth grade without speaking English at Merrill Middle School, being resourceful and working her way through. She went to South High School, was not as successful in her first semester, and her mom said, “Hey, we all moved so we could live the American Dream.” And so [Mena] started taking honors classes, she graduated with a 4.6 [GPA], she started volunteering at the VA.
She went to CU Denver, and has really been very actively engaged from that time at the VA working with, in particular, older veterans because they have this shared experience around war.
Now she’s applying to med school. She wants to be a doctor who focuses on working with veterans. And while waiting to get into medical school, she’s working at Merrill as a paraprofessional to give back to the middle school that welcomed her to Colorado.
She is one of many shining examples of this incredible zest and passion for giving back.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Our biggest takeaway from the 300 experience is twofold. One, honestly, how appreciative we are to the Denver voters. And what a reminder it is that every vote counts, literally.
This teeny, tiny sales tax increase that’s just 0.08 percent — no one is even going to notice it when they conduct commerce; it’s less than a penny on $10 — will raise about $14 million a year that nonprofit organizations will then have the opportunity to be reimbursed to provide an even greater, deeper, wider, broader level of access to education beyond high school.
And that, to me, that’s systemic. That’s how we come together as a community to grow our own talent and build our own future. It’s a cool time to be a Denverite.