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University On A Hill Provides Undocumented Students Low Cost Education

Colorado lawmakers are once again debating a measure that would allow reduced public college tuition for undocumented students. While that bill faces an uncertain future, one private University in Denver has preempted the issue since 2009 by actively recruiting immigrant students, and giving them an education at a very low cost.

By many accounts – the area around South Federal Boulevard is a “rough” neighborhood.

The area is predominately Hispanic. Medical Marijuana dispensaries are squeezed in between rundown and empty strip malls and brightly painted taco shops. Some are dotted with colorful graffiti.

But one thing stands out: Colorado Heights University

The 76 acre wooded campus sits on a hill and its six story bell tower – literally towers over South Federal.

“How can we take this beautiful campus and give students maybe right up the street on Federal an opportunity to study on a private campus?"

Jason Johnson is Assistant Director of Recruiting at the non-profit, private, Colorado Heights University. He says the unique bell tower is a beacon in southwest Denver, guiding people home to South Federal Blvd.

Another unique feature is the fact that the University actively recruits people who are in the country illegally, and enrolls them without proof of citizenship or a social security number. Johnson says CSU is the only university in the state to do so.

“We are educators with a very simple goal. We want to provide education to all students. We don’t feel that education should be something offered only to the elite or the mega wealthy.”

And that’s at the crux of the issue being debated at the state capitol. But it’s actually being played out in this southwest Denver neighborhood.

Inside CHU’s small but well appointed student lounge, “Victor” is playing pool with his friends.

Victor” didn’t want to give his full name because he’s in the country illegally. He is a Mexican national, and has been in the country since the age of nine.

Because undocumented students can’t prove state residency, Colorado’s public universities charge upwards of $14-thousand dollars a semester [.pdf] for out-of-state tuition. Only having to pay $500 dollars a month for his classes at Colorado Heights is extremely attractive to Victor.

“The opportunity that they charge us in-state tuition, you know unlike other colleges, out-of- state tuition. You get a huge opportunity to go to school most of them don’t even go to school because they can’t afford it.”

But not all are keen on this open door policy.

Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz says her biggest concern is not only that this type of education is being offered in her neighborhood – it’s a catch 22 because it sets up unrealistic expectations.

“My constituency is delighted to see education opportunities being offered locally.[But] they are concerned in cases where individuals, who are undocumented, coming into a system where they can’t even get jobs because they are prohibited from holding jobs.”

Dr. Vicki Strunk is Dean of Academic Affairs at Colorado Heights. She understands the concerns of some in the area including the councilwoman. She says all students have a right to an education, regardless of their immigrant status.

“There is a huge need in the community for helping undocumented folks survive in this community of English speakers. And we have an awesome ESL program that’s academically focused to help prepare students to not only help survive in the community, but to reach their next level of education. Whatever that may be.”

However, maybe the best gauge of how things are playing out is back along South Federal Blvd.

Bubba Chino's BBQ is on a busy corner across from the university. Manager Vince Clark sits at a table greeting customers. He says the students he feeds every day from Colorado Heights –undocumented or documented- are a good group, and a benefit to his community.

“Honestly the school over there is a good school. I don’t know about the curriculum or the teachers at all, but the kids are really good. I think it has a lot to do with the teachers, ‘cause like I said, they’re smart kids. Honestly, I haven’t seen any one of ‘em even resemble anything being close to stupid.”

That’s just one opinion of a person along South Federal Blvd. But it's opinions like Victor’s that will be debated in the coming weeks at the Colorado state house as lawmakers continue to wrestle with the issue of tuition and education of undocumented students.