Working toward higher education affordability


By Representative McLachlan
SUN Columnist

The Making Higher Education Attainable interim committee met this summer, where I learned that more students than ever are older. No longer the 18-year-old who just graduated high school, supported by parents, this growing sector is working full time, often has children and bills, and is pursuing college for a better life.
Higher education affordability is a huge issue, both in Colorado and across the country. Students who want to pursue a four-year degree face the prospect of mountains of debt and many students are deterred from this path altogether for financial reasons. A four-year degree isn’t — and doesn’t have to be — the right path for everyone, but we need to make it a viable path for those who want it
We have been holding joint hearings between the legislature and state departments for annual updates on the departments’ goals, progress toward them and any key initiatives. This is an important oversight function of the legislature to know what the departments are working on and ensure they’re staying on track.
As chair of the House Education Committee, I was particularly glad to hear from the Department of Higher Education and its focus on increasing affordability and improving student completion of their degree.
My first bill this year is College Credit for Work Experience (House Bill 1002). This bill is a bipartisan effort with my fellow Rep. Mark Baisley which we worked on throughout the summer and fall in the interim committee.
The goal of this bill is to give formal recognition for certain skills and knowledge gained from work-related experiences. This can help students avoid spending time and money on unnecessary prerequisite and foundational courses and expedite their path toward a degree, making their overall higher education journey shorter and more affordable. This also fits in with the efforts we’ve made over recent years to increase the availability and usage of concurrent enrollment courses and I’m excited to see how it helps Colorado students.
My second bill, Higher Education Student Emergency Assistance Grants (House Bill 1110), will also help students with higher education affordability by preventing disruptions and dropouts.
One of the key goals we’re striving toward as policymakers is increasing degree completion. Students make a large investment of money and time — frequently taking on a lot of debt — to obtain a higher education degree, in the hopes that their investment will pay off over time in the form of expanded career opportunities and (generally) higher-paying jobs.
But their plans can be derailed by many things, most frequently by unexpected financial hurdles. When students are unable to finish their degrees, they’re hit with a double whammy — they’ve built up significant debt but don’t have the payoff of the completed degree. It’s particularly heartbreaking when a relatively small, but still very real, financial hardship like a car breaking down causes a student to drop out when they’ve already spent substantially more than that in pursuit of their degree.
This bill, which I’m sponsoring with my colleague Rep. Tony Exum Sr., creates small emergency assistance grants to help students stay on track toward their degrees in the face of these types of challenges. This can make the difference between students completing their degrees on time, or at all, and improve affordability by decreasing overall time towards completion.
Finally, I am sponsoring one other bill on the topic of higher education that is of particular importance to our community. House Bill 1108 will expand the board of Fort Lewis College in order to ensure representation by Native Americans and our local Ute tribes. Representation matters; this legislation will help ensure the Native American community, which comprises more than 40 percent of the Fort Lewis College student body, has adequate seats at the table in decision-making at our beloved local institution.
Last year, we made great progress on this goal of improving affordability. We were able to hold tuition flat for Colorado students at our state universities — helping avoid additional financial burden for students and their families. We also passed a bill to increase oversight of student loan lenders operating in Colorado and helped parents plan for their kids’ futures by encouraging them to open college savings accounts when their children are born. It was exciting to see that the very first beneficiary of this program was born in neighboring Montrose — baby Jorge Esteban Herrera-Delgado, born just after midnight on New Year’s Day.
I’ll continue working on ways to invest in our future, expand opportunity and protect our Colorado way of life.