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Pikes Peak Community College is celebrating the anniversary of the Dakota Promise, a program that offers free tuition to qualified graduates of Harrison School District 2.

Pikes Peak Community College recently marked the first anniversary of a program that makes college a reality for hundreds of Colorado Springs residents who might not otherwise afford it.

The Dakota Promise program, a partnership between the community college and Harrison School District 2, offers free tuition to all qualified graduates from any traditional or charter high school in the 11,000-student district.

Funded by The Dakota Foundation and the Legacy Institute – two Colorado Springs-based nonprofits – the Dakota Promise program has covered tuition, fees and textbooks for nearly 400 students since its 2020 inception.

“The Dakota Promise is a guarantee to all Harrison District 2 high school graduates with a 2.25 or better GPA who enroll here, that their tuition and fees will be covered,” said PPCC President Lance Bolton. “There’s no ‘catch,’ no tricks, and no gimmicks.”

The program was born out of a desire to offer increased opportunities to an underserved part of the local population, Bolton said. The college’s long-standing relationship with District 2 made it a natural fit for the program.

"We know the financial barrier often prohibits students from exploring the option of a college degree or trade certificate straight out of high school,” said district superintendent Wendy Birhanzel. “This is one of the best gifts we can give our graduates." 

In addition to free tuition, the college provides professional “student success coaches” who offer academic, transportation, and personal support. Many Dakota scholars are first-generation college students who don’t have anyone at home to help smooth the transition from high school to college.

“The support coaches fill a number of roles,” Bolton said. “They act as accountability partners, problem solvers, and cheerleaders. The coaches are there to keep students on track, and to let them know that somebody cares about them and wants them to succeed.”

The college made the decision to bring in success coaches after discovering a surprising piece of educational data, Bolton said.

“A study suggests that if nobody at a college knows your name within the first three weeks of your first semester, it increases your likelihood of dropping out,” he said. “The coaches reach out to students right away and help them feel connected.”

“I have been surrounded by amazing coaches to help me stay motivated,” said Dakota scholar Daniel Ho. “The coaches are also great mentors to me as well by keeping me from doubting myself.”

The program is already reaping tangible dividends, college officials said. In its first year, District 2 enrollment at the college increased 49%, from 96 students to 143.

"It's so exciting for us to already see the kind of difference we're making for the Dakota students," said Pikes Peak President Lance Bolton. “The fact that we’ve had this kind of boost in enrollment during a pandemic shows that there was really a need there.”

Bolton said the Dakota program has the potential to change the lives of lower-income students by making college more than just a pipe dream. When students can see that higher education is a possibility, it can help influence the decisions they make about their future.

“It’s a powerful thing for students, and for their parents,” Bolton said. “Now parents don’t have to tell their kids that college is off the table because they can’t afford it. We’re changing the conversation.”

Dakota scholar Alissa Martinez-Watts said the program has given her the chance to pursue her dream of becoming a psychologist.

“Dakota Promise has given me a lot of opportunities, not only for college, but in life overall," Martinez-Watts said. "This scholarship has opened many doors for me.”

Bolton said the college hopes to foster similar partnerships with other local districts in the future.

“We’ve had so many Dakota students tell us, ‘I never imagined I would go to college. Then I heard about this program, and I’m in college now’,” he said. “It’s incredibly satisfying and encouraging, and it makes us want to help even more students.”

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