Western covering full tuition and fees for low-income students

Mountaineer Promise starting this fall

By Kendra Walker

This week, Western Colorado University announced its new Mountaineer Promise initiative to help make higher education more affordable and accessible to everyone. Starting fall of 2024, Colorado residents whose annual household income is less than $70,000 can attend Western with tuition and fees covered by grants and scholarships. 

The Mountaineer Promise will be available to any incoming or enrolled undergraduate Colorado resident whose annual household income is less than the maximum limit. Students who meet the eligibility criteria will have the cost of their tuition and fees covered through their entire WCU enrollment to graduation. 

“At Western, we believe everyone should be able to pursue their dreams and have access to the transformative power of education,” said Western president Brad Baca. “One of the goals in our Strategic Plan is improving affordability and access. ​​There’s no better way than to identify scholarships and grant programs that provide low-income students the ability to attend Western and receive a quality degree. The Mountaineer Promise aligns with our Strategic Plan and reflects our dedication to breaking down financial barriers and providing a pathway for all students to pursue higher education. We hope it does make an impact.”

The Mountaineer Promise is made possible through a combination of federal, state and institutional grants and scholarships for eligible Colorado residents. According to Baca, Western has set aside funds in its scholarship budget to cover the remainder of the tuition costs and fees once all federal, state and additional financial aid for each eligible student are taken into account. 

“If a student comes from a family that brings in less than $70,000 per year, federal student aid (FAFSA) will cover most of that student’s tuition. The state’s financial aid programs will cover almost all of what’s left,” said Western media and communications manager Seth Mensing. “Whatever money isn’t covered by those grants, at that point Western will step in to cover the remainder of the tuition plus all mandatory fees. The Promise is in place to cover those students who come from families that previously would not have qualified for enough aid to cover tuition and fees, but still don’t make enough to cover the cost of college without taking on significant debt.”

Western anticipates the program to cost approximately $60,000 to $100,000 per year. “The $100,000 it will cost Western to support the program is the additional cost of covering those students whose families fall in between,” said Mensing.

“The share Western will pay is the tiny portion of the tuition and fees remaining, which, since we are covering our own costs, comes out to something less than what the students pay. Some of that money will come back to Western in the form of reimbursements from the state and feds.”

Western’s in-state tuition and required fees cost $11,083, before room, board and optional fees. Western currently serves 1,800 full-time undergraduate students with over 4,000 total students in all academic programs. According to Mensing, approximately 100 students would qualify for Mountaineer Promise based on enrollment numbers and current financial aid coverage. “Of course, our goal is to make it more affordable so more of those students would see a college education as a viable option,” he said. 

Baca noted that while Mountaineer Promise is similar to other university promise programs in the state, similar financial aid programs typically do not cover fees in addition to tuition. “Ours is unique in that we cover the fees as well.” University fees are substantial, said Baca, costing Western full-time students approximately $3,000 to $4,000 a year. “That’s a significant amount of money that we can cover through this program.” 

Baca also shared that most other similar programs cut off the income threshold at $60,000 or $65,000. “Western has gone the extra step in raising that income threshold to $70,000. That really differentiates our program from the others. I think that’s an important distinction when people assess the landscape of educational opportunities. We’re reaching a broader audience,” he said. “If you’re a low-income student, that doesn’t mean a Western education is out of reach financially for you. We hope it increases the number of students we can impact.”

Mountaineer Promise joins several Western financial aid programs aiming to help serve students in the community, the region and the state pursuing higher education.

Western’s Geiman Scholars Program targets low-income first-generation students living in the Gunnison Valley. It covers all tuition, fees, room and board for four years, and provides the student with a mentoring program. “That program is funded from the generosity of Dave Geiman,” who has contributed $6.6 million toward that program, said Baca.

Additionally, Western’s Concurrent Enrollment (CE) program gives high school students the opportunity to take free college courses while still in high school. Students as young as freshmen in high school can take college classes to help complete their degrees in a shorter period and reduce higher education costs. “It’s a huge benefit,” said Mensing. “It gives students the opportunity to get a lot of foundational classes out of the way, and it gets them on campus and a feel for college life.”

Western also continues to work toward its Gunnison Valley Promise program that would provide free tuition to any student graduating from the Gunnison Watershed School District. Baca said Western is still working on fundraising in order to finance and launch that program. The goal is to create a $7.5 million endowment that would continue the program in perpetuity.  

“Through all of these programs we want to serve students in the valley and support the entire community and region,” said Mensing. 

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