Free college — no longer a pipe dream

Springtime is here! And, if you have a high school senior under your roof, or you are a high school senior, then chances are you're both thinking about the next chapter in life after high school graduation. For some, this brings about a sense of excitement; for others, worry; and for most, a bit of both.

What college should I attend? Should I even go to college and does it really do any good? My family can't afford for me to go to college, can they? All of these are very real questions and big worries. To address these issues and more, read on.

First, let's talk about some real facts out there concerning education and jobs. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the country will require post-secondary education or training beyond high school, with 30 percent of those jobs requiring some college or an associate degree and 35 percent requiring a bachelor's degree or more.

The current percentage of degree holders in the state is 46 percent; in Eagle County, that number is 46.7 percent. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education projects that in order to meet employers' demands by 2025, 67 percent of the state's workforce will need a high-quality post-secondary credential or degree.

    "By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the country will require post-secondary education or training beyond high school, with 30 percent of those jobs requiring some college or an associate degree and 35 percent requiring a bachelor’s degree or more."

When considering mobility out of poverty, education remains the primary source for improved lifetime earnings. Individuals with an associate degree earn, on average, 24 percent more than those with only a high school diploma; those with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn 66 percent more than those with a high school diploma.

In Eagle County Schools, nearly 80 percent of high school students graduate on time after four years of high school, and about two-thirds of those graduates opt to continue their education at four-year colleges or universities. Nationally, the post-secondary (college) on-time graduation rate for first time students is 60 percent. Students most often cite financial hardship as the cause for their not completing their college degree within four years. Given what is at stake for the future of our youth and our economy, there has to be a better and more affordable way to think about pursuing higher education.

Many of you know that Eagle County Schools and Colorado Mountain College have collaborated extensively to bring dual enrollment offerings to more than 500 local high school students, providing them with early exposure to college-level classes and reducing the cost of higher education for many.

Through a new Eagle County Schools program available starting in the fall, students may now opt to earn their first 60 credits of college — including tuition, books and fees — for free. Yes, absolutely free. There is a path to earn an associate degree, or those first 60 college credits, at no cost to the student or the family, through a program called Early College High School.

Here is how it works: Students in their senior year of high school have the option to enroll in Early College High School. In doing so, students receive an allocation valid towards tuition at Colorado Mesa University, or enough funds to cover the entire cost of their tuition, books and fees at Colorado Mountain College. Students will effectively delay their official high school graduation date (but not their ability to walk at the graduation ceremonies with their friends), so that they can complete an identified associate degree or 60 college credits.

What's the catch? No catch, but there are some guidelines. Students who opt for Early College High School will need to do so by May 1 of their senior year. Students will have two calendar years to complete 60 credits. They need to meet college-ready guidelines in English and math, which may be achieved (for free) during the summer months before entering Early College, if not already achieved by their senior year in high school. Students who have completed some college credit as part of dual enrollment will also have two years to complete 60 credits, but will have fewer credits to complete, based on the number of college courses they've already taken.

Think about it: All students (and by all, we mean all!) who choose this route have access to two years of college for free. In two years, students can launch a career and become firefighters, medical assistants, surgical technologists, early childhood educators, chefs, paramedics, mechanics, welders and more. Colorado Mountain College understands that many students must work after high school graduation and offers classes in a flexible manner so that students may live, learn and work in our beautiful valley.

Students can also receive their first two years of college for free in anticipation of transferring to another institution, or completing their bachelor's degree from one of the five offered at various CMC campuses, including: applied science, elementary teacher education, nursing, business administration and sustainability studies. Students who wish to carry on with their education at CMC after completing Early College High School will be eligible for an additional $1,000 President's Scholarship, in addition to the numerous other scholarships available.

This news of free college is a lot to take in, but there is a commitment from both the school district and the participating colleges to provide access to an education that employers' across the nation see as necessary for careers of the future. Both the high school and the college can help you learn more and are a phone call, a visit or a website click away (http://www.eagle schools.net).

High-quality higher education can be free for all Eagle County public school students; it's no longer a pipe dream. The game has officially changed, and for the better!