By Regan Foster
Harrison School District 2, Pikes Peak Community College and a pair of philanthropic organizations are making D-2 students a major promise.
A scholarship program conceived by the college, embraced by the district and funded by the Dakota Foundation and the Legacy Institute will offer a full, two-year scholarship to all qualifying D-2 graduates starting with the class of 2020. Dubbed the Dakota Promise Scholarship, the program will cover all of the students’ costs, including tuition, books, fees, transportation and food, said Wendy Birhanzel, D-2 dual superintendent and an expert in curriculum and instruction. Students will also be paired with a success coach to help them navigate the college.
“We’re so excited. It’s amazing,” Birhanzel said of the scholarship. “We say college is for everyone, but then some kids can’t go because of costs or other factors. We really think this helps change the earning potential for our [families] in the Southeast.”
To qualify, students must graduate from a district high school or the Career Readiness Academy, must apply to the college, must apply for the grant and must have at least a 2.5 grade point average during their junior and senior years, Birhanzel said.
Between Sierra and Harrison high schools and the academy, about 400 D-2 students earn their diplomas each year, Birhanzel said. PPCC President Lance Bolton is ready to welcome as many as want to register. The pilot scholarship program is expected to cost about $650,000 over its first three years, he said.
“Some of that’s scholarships, some of it is the student-success coaches that are being assigned to and attached to these students,” he said. “We are hopeful and being very innovative with this.”
Bolton and his team spent about three years researching similar scholarships across the country. They knew they wanted to partner with a local school district where the benefits of higher education could have the best impact. But at the same time, the initiative had to be kept manageable.
D-2, with its roughly 11,700-student population, higher rates of student poverty and existing relationship with PPCC, fit the bill. The district and college already partnered on a concurrent degree initiative, which allows D-2 students to pursue their associate degree while also completing their high school education (about 25 graduates each year), but Bolton saw a chance to serve even more Southeast youths.
So Bolton, armed with a district and with a state initiative that double scholarship donations, set about recruiting philanthropic support. The Dakota Foundation, a Springs-based nonprofit whose website says it aims to grow self-sufficiency in the community by providing residents with the tools they need to help themselves, signed up to fund the first three years of the program. The Legacy Institute, an education and community-development nonprofit launched by local philanthropist Margo Lane and helmed by her son Philip Lane will help cover the costs, and D-2 will control the funding in Year 4 and beyond. If the Legacy Institute seems familiar, that may be because it was a driving influence behind the district’s successful $180 million bond question last November.
“It’s certainly well-known and understood by many in the community that Southeast Colorado Springs has been an economically challenged area of city. That’s mostly who District 2 serves,” Bolton said.
U.S. Census data show Southeast (80910 and 80916 ZIP codes) median income is at least $10,600 lower than the rest of the city. During the 2018-19 academic year, Colorado Department of Education data show 73.3 percent of D-2 students received free or reduced-price lunch compared with 56.7 percent in Colorado Springs School District 11, and 12.2 percent in neighboring Cheyenne Mountain District 12.
According to the Colorado Community College System, for every dollar invested in community college education, students receive $4.30 in lifetime earnings, $5.70 is gained in added tax and public sector savings, and state revenue/social savings are boosted by $11.30. So growing access to higher education can clearly grow the economy. The scholarship applies to associate degree programs as well as trade certifications.
“Many times we have kids who will apply to Pikes Peak but they won’t end up enrolling or doing the financial aid because they think finances aren’t an option,” Birhanzel said. “[Bolton] saw we needed to do something different and he saw all the kids who needed access to college. He saw this as an increased partnership: How do we put our heads together and focus on kids and the next steps?”
The aim is to double the number of students attending college within one year of high school graduation and get 80 percent of those students to complete a certificate or degree, or to transfer to a four-year college or university.
The 2016 presidential campaign thrust college affordability — and the staggering debts that can pile up in the name of education — into the national spotlight. The conversation has only ratcheted up in recent weeks thanks to the Democratic presidential debates. While candidates differ on the best approach, they agree that student debt is a major problem facing the nation.
Success stories elsewhere
While it’s believed to be the first of its kind in Colorado, such partnerships are not unprecedented. A Washington, D.C.-based organization called the College Promise Campaign studies both the nature and the efficacy of such programs, already in place.
In 2014, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam rallied a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, elected officials and leaders of the business and nonprofit sectors to launch Tennessee Promise. That program earned national renown for covering in-state tuition and fees for recent high school grads to attend a community college or technical school.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, a similar program covers tuition and fees for Kalamazoo High School students to attend any state college — public or private.
And in El Dorado, Ark., the Murphy Oil Corporation covers tuition and fees for all El Dorado High School graduates who attended the school since ninth grade — 84 percent of those high school graduates attend college, compared to 50 percent statewide.
Aside from being the first such scholarship partnership in Colorado, the Dakota Promise not only pays for tuition, books and fees, it partners collegians with student-success coaches whose job is to help them navigate the sometimes-rough tides of higher education. Coaches help students with everything from choosing a degree or career pathway to managing the emotional and academic rigors of college life.
“For first-generation students who have had no one in their families go [to college], there are so many barriers built in,” Bolton said. “Student-success coaches are really there to support students on all of those fronts. To help them navigate the processes, to help ensure that the students know they can be successful.”
The numbers bear that out, as well. A pair of coaches currently support about 300 students, Bolton said. Of those students, about 93 percent who matriculated during the fall semester last year came back for the spring semester. College-wide, the president added, the number is closer to 77 percent.
“These coaches were only really supporting what we would term the ‘highest-risk’ students: low-income, first-generation students,” he said. “They outperformed their peers significantly.”
For Birhanzel, the Dakota Promise Scholarship is more than just a pilot program, it’s a long-term commitment to both the students and the community that is raising them.
“Our commitment now is preschool through grade 14,” Birhanzel said. “We offer all the way through college. It’s huge!
“This is us committing to our kids after they’ve left us. … [It’s] a perfect partnership of a unified vision.”