Pikes Peak Community College celebrates graduation (copy)

Pikes Peak Community College professor Ryan Johnson, left, takes a selfie with his student Tim Steffens after he received his diploma in May.

Pikes Peak Community College is giving graduating Harrison District 2 seniors who might not have planned to continue their education or couldn’t afford it a chance to attend for free.

Funded by the Dakota Foundation and the Legacy Institute, the Dakota Promise Scholarship for no-cost tuition will be extended to all eligible Harrison School District 2 seniors, said Warren Epstein, executive director of marketing and communication for PPCC.

The district was selected because of its underserved population: More than three-fourths of Harrison’s 11,700 students are from low-income families and three-fourths identify as minorities. In addition to free tuition, the program also covers coaching on transportation, financial literacy, obtaining food and academic success.

“This is going to address people in the community that may not be fully economically supported after high school,” said PPCC spokeswoman Karen Kovaly.

“Instead of working at McDonald’s, they’ll become a welder or other position in the community.”

About 52% of Harrison grads went on to a four-year, two-year or technical program last year, according to Colorado Department of Education statistics.

Organizers expect more than 100 Harrison students to participate in the first year of the program.

“It’s going to make college a reality — finances won’t be a barrier, and it will increase their earning potential as a family,” said Harrison D-2 co-Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel.

To be eligible, students must have at least a 2.5-grade-point-average upon graduation from high school — so this year’s juniors are being encouraged to consider that requirement, Kovaly said.

Students also will need to apply to PPCC within one year after graduating from high school and apply for federal financial grants and scholarships.

“Whatever they qualify for from the federal government, we will pay the difference,” Kovaly said. “If they don’t qualify for any federal assistance, we will pay the whole thing.”

That amounts to $4,000 to $5,000 worth of education per year, to earn an associate degree from PPCC, she said.

Students can study whatever area of interest they want at PPCC, including a multitude of technical and career certificate programs.

PPCC officials began forming the idea about a year ago, Epstein said.

“We were talking about the idea of making it a requirement that every high school student has to apply for college, and it started getting deeper about what we can do to get to more success for more students,” he said.

“We have to find a way to make college free for a large segment of our population, and technically that’s not enough. We have to add another layer of support.”

Coaches provided by PPCC will work with each student to identify barriers to higher education, including basic necessities as well as financial training, and help the student figure out how to overcome those, Kovaly said

“Money is one thing, but it’s not going to mean that kid will get through school with all the barriers there are,” she said.

“Our message to students is ‘You’re not alone. You’re going to have somebody with you every step of the way,’” Epstein said.

The funding of an unspecified amount is committed for three years,” Kovaly said.

“This changes everything, Birhanzel said. “We will truly be a preschool-to-college district. This will be huge for our kids.”

Colorado College, a private liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, announced this week that a new program also starting in fall 2020 will lower attendance costs for its students from families earning under $200,000 and offer free tuition, room and board for accepted students from families earning less than $60,000.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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