WCU developing a free tuition program for local high school grads

Hoping to fund the Gunnison Valley Promise

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

Western Colorado University is working to provide free tuition to local high school graduates in the near future, and has begun looking in earnest for both public and private funding to make it happen sooner rather than later. The initiative, called the Gunnison Valley Promise, aims to make a Western degree more attainable to people graduating from high school within the Gunnison Valley where one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. intersects with one of the lowest median incomes. The concept has the support of the Gunnison Watershed School District (GWSD) and the Community Foundation, and Gunnison Valley Promise hopes to combine public and private funding to get the program up and running.

Gunnison Valley Promise would provide free tuition for four years to all full-time students who graduate from GWSD, regardless of financial qualifications. The university’s vice president/chief financial officer Julie Baca sat down with the Crested Butte News recently to discuss the concept and why the goal for free tuition has come forward.

“It’s brutal,” says Baca of the average college expenses. She notes that because of room and board costs, many students choose to stay at home with their families, and free tuition would make WCU an even more affordable choice for local students who have that option to live at home. She said it isn’t just for the lowest income group, either.

“There’s that missing middle, too,” she said of the middle income earning families who don’t have as much access to financial aid but still can’t afford a university education.

Baca shared a WCU report showing that the average GWSD graduating class is 155 students, and 60 percent of local grads are four-year college-bound, which is lower than the national average. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national rate of college enrollment was 62.7 percent in 2020, down from 66.2 percent the prior year.

The theory is that providing free tuition to local students would get more of them to pursue a university education and lead to greater pathways for them in the future. The idea started as part of the One Valley Prosperity Project’s economic sustainability goals and initiatives several years ago, and was recently reintroduced as the One Valley Leadership Council discussed ways to sustain long-term economic prosperity in the valley.

“The Gunnison Valley Promise will break the chains of generational poverty, give our valley youth permission to dream and the tools needed to fulfill that dream,” says Baca.

Baca believes this program could give locals who are struggling with the housing and high cost of living more of an edge. It could also benefit the industries trying to recruit new employees or retain the ones they have.

Western has an average of 19 new students enroll each year from a high school in the GWSD and aims to increase that number to 30. In order to provide free tuition, Gunnison Valley Promise set a fundraising target of $7.5 million to begin the program, which would come from public and private funding.

WCU tuition for in-state students is $6,816 for 2022, and last year local students received $4,078 in aid on average. WCU has estimated that it would need to provide an additional $2,500 per student beyond the current average tuition aid package for local students, or $75,000 per year of new enrollees. That number would increase annually to an estimated $300,000 when the program reached its fourth year and potentially began sustaining around 120 local students.

Western is approaching local governments for buy-in and has work sessions scheduled with Crested Butte town council on August 3 and August 17 in Mt. CB.

The goal is to partner with the city of Gunnison, towns of Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte and Gunnison County as well as other local anchor businesses to establish funding momentum that will serve to inspire the local community to support this effort.

“The Gunnison Valley Promise goes far beyond rewarding our local students; it is truly a community-building vision that strengthens the valley by enabling our kids to become leaders and creators of our collective future,” wrote Leslie Nichols, GWSD superintendent in support of the concept.

Baca echoed this sentiment. “We have so many awesome people in the community that I think are going to get excited and, I think if the local governments step up, they will have a transformational impact.”

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