Welcome back to the Beyond High School newsletter.

Valentine’s Day might be over, but connecting K-12 students to college classes is still getting a lot of love in Colorado.

State lawmakers have several proposals aimed at growing these programs. One bill lifts the cap on the ASCENT program, potentially opening free college classes to thousands more high school students. Another would convene a task force to streamline early college, which allows some students to leave high school with an associate degree in hand.

These proposals come on top of years of bipartisan support for improving access to concurrent enrollment, college classes offered in high schools.

The theme I’ve heard here is that we want to blur the line as a state between high school and college, even as proposals for actual free college don’t get much traction. That really got me thinking about what comes next and what might be missing.

To understand this issue better, I talked to state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat and former educator and school board member. She is sponsoring the bills to streamline college opportunities in high school. Bacon told me one reason this approach took off in Colorado is because students in the United States without legal documentation couldn’t access college.

That’s changed to some degree, with Colorado offering in-state tuition to undocumented students and the federal DACA program opening up financial aid opportunities, but those programs have carried on.

Bacon sees these programs as tools to lower the cost of college for students. The programs also build a more educated workforce, she said.

“We want to reinforce the notion that this is the type of programming that the state should believe in,” she said.

As we blur these lines, I’ve asked whether this is the most cost-effective way to get students college experience. Inevitably, I think about what I’ve seen covering free college in Tennessee. As the pioneer, Tennessee mostly uses federal money to connect students to a two-year degree. That has plenty of benefits from a state financial perspective, compared with Colorado where we spend extra to get students college classes in high school.

But there are definite cost factors depending on how these programs are structured. Tennessee put millions aside to start the program. And the state covers the remainder of tuition and fees when all other public student funding sources are exhausted. Other states take a different approach, including providing state funding for tuition and fees before students apply for other funding sources.

Nationally, the Biden administration initially fueled momentum behind free community college. But that’s now off the table.

Bacon said she does have an interest in free college. And advocacy groups I’ve talked to say they want the state to eventually take on that initiative. But right now, we have low rates of Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion, which means many students are leaving millions in federal grants and scholarships on the table. The state would ultimately have to pick up those costs.

So for now, free college comes at the high school level. And it looks like for the foreseeable future, that’s where the focus will remain.

Thank you for reading. Now that you know what I am thinking about, share with me your thoughts. What do you think about college in high school? What questions should I be asking about these proposals? What models should I be researching to inform my reporting about Colorado?

And as always, please get in touch. Reach me on Twitter at @ByJasonGonzales or via email at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

This item appeared in Beyond High School, a Chalkbeat newsletter by Jason Gonzales about college-going in Colorado. Sign up for your own copy here.

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