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Higher Ed. Vouchers

While the term "voucher" has been igniting contentious debate in K-12 education for years, some higher education officials in Colorado are now using that label as they discuss new ways to help students pay for college.

A blue-ribbon panel on higher education, appointed by Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, is flirting with the concept of giving vouchers to students to use at in-state colleges and universities.

Colorado ranks last in the nation in the proportion of low-income students going to college. Only 13 percent of those students in 1999 attended college, compared with a national average of 24 percent.

While needy students can often qualify for financial assistance in paying for college, some officials see vouchers as a quicker and more user- friendly alternative for students and families than the often daunting financial-aid process.

One option the panel has explored is providing a $4,300 voucher per year for the state's full-time resident college students and graduating high school seniors planning on attending college.

The financial assistance would be used only at public universities, where tuition averages $2,475 a year.

Vouchers would be distributed to student accounts in lieu of giving the campuses general operating funds.

Some lawmakers want to give low- income students more-generous vouchers. For the state's poorest students, they would cover the whole cost of tuition.

If adopted, Colorado would become the first state to provide publicly financed vouchers to students to help pay for college.

One subject of debate centers on how long students could use the vouchers. Panel members want to limit use to 135 credit hours, or four and a half years. Presidents of the state's two largest public universities, however, have pushed for vouchers that could be used for 150 hours.

Still, a possible roadblock exists: the state's sagging economy.

"One concern is if we went to a voucher system, we want to do it well," said Joan Ringel, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. "With the financial constraints, there is some discussion about whether this is the year to do it well. We're really a work in progress. We're nowhere close to saying this is the voucher proposal."

—John Gehring

Vol. 22, Issue 1, Page 22

Published in Print: September 4, 2002, as State Journal

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