Colorado lawmakers want to expand a program that lets students stay in high school for a fifth year while taking college courses at no cost to them. The hope is that it will increase the number of students who earn a degree. 

The proposal calls for eliminating both a 500-student enrollment cap on the program and the requirement that students pay districts if they fail or drop out of classes. The bill would also reduce the number of high school credits students need to participate in the program, called Accelerating Students through Concurrent Enrollment, or Ascent.

Democratic lawmakers state Rep. Mike Weissman and state Sen. Janet Buckner, both of Aurora, and state Rep. Jennifer Bacon of Denver are sponsoring the bill. Weissman said talking with students who said the program helped them pursue a college degree moved him to back the bill. 

The bill passed out of the House Education Committee on Thursday in a 6-3 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. The bill still needs to pass the full House and Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

The program offers the possibility of tuition-free college credit and a head start on a college education, which can be especially helpful to students from low-income backgrounds. 

“I want to create hope for more students to pursue this course, get a college degree, and then move on with that accomplishment in their lives,” Weissman said. “I think this is an investment very worth our state making.”

The program began in the 2010-11 school year, and over 40 districts used the program in  2018-19, according to a state report. The program provides schools with a per pupil amount — somewhat less than what schools receive for other high school students — to educate students in college classes offered at community colleges.

Since its inception, the program has helped thousands of students earn credit, including many who are Hispanic and from low-income backgrounds

Marisa Beltran, 22, who took college classes while in high school, said programs like Ascent saved her thousands, allowing her to graduate from Colorado State University Pueblo in two years. She is now working toward her master’s degree. 

Lifting a 500-student enrollment cap, a state analysis found, would cost the state an additional $3.7 million next school year and $5.7 million in the following year. The analysis projects enrollment to increase by about 1,000 students over two years.

State Rep. Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican who voted against the bill, said he wants to see the program expand, but worries about the state and districts not having a way to recoup costs if a student decides not to finish classes.

“I do understand every situation where this arises is different and not every situation will warrant a financial recovery,” Larson said. “But I do think there will be a situation where it does warrant it.”

School districts would lose the per-pupil state funds they receive if a program participant fails or drops out. But passing that cost onto students, advocates say, would deter participation.

Kyra deGruy Kennedy, director of Young Invincibles Rocky Mountain, a group that advocates to get students more involved in decision making and in increasing higher education opportunities, opposes the requirement. Low-income students face many obstacles outside of school, such as the need to work, which can keep them from finishing classes.

University of Colorado Denver student Alexandra Reyes Amaya, 19, said finances determine whether students who don’t have much money participate in a program or college. 

She said because college classes are difficult, not all students will do well. Risking a big expense like repaying a school district will deter students from low-income backgrounds, she said. That is counterproductive.

”These are the types of students that we want in the program,” she said.

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.