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MSU Denver aims to increase number of students paying zero dollars in tuition

The new MSU Denver Jordan Student Success Building.
Olga Sago
MSU Denver
The new MSU Denver Jordan Student Success Building.

The price of college continues to rise, and for many prospective students, figuring out how to pay for their education only adds to the stress of the admissions process. Some schools in Colorado are looking to bridge the gap by providing more grants and scholarships to students.

Will Simpkins, vice president for student affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver, joined KUNC’s Samantha Coetzee to talk about a new program aimed at covering tuition costs.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Samantha Coetzee: MSU Denver recently announced it’s expanding a tuition program called the Roadrunner Promise. Can you explain what the program is and why it’s being changed now?

Will Simpkins: For the last five years, MSU Denver has ensured that for any student from Colorado with a $2,400 or less expected family contribution, we meet the full cost of their tuition and fees so that student pays zero dollars in tuition and fees to attend MSU Denver. That works for transfer students, first-time students, part-time students and full-time students. We also know that many of our first-time students come to the university saying that they want to graduate in four years, but they don't. The expansion of the Roadrunner Promise program is focused on first-time students. So those coming straight out of high school, full-time students, those taking at least 12 credit hours a semester and are Colorado residents with a combined family adjusted gross income or AGI of $60,000 or less. For those students, we make the same promise: zero dollars in tuition and fees for up to four years. We're hoping that this is one way that we can help those first-time freshmen get across the four-year finish line a little easier than before.

It seems like the Roadrunner Promise is making higher education more accessible to a larger group of people by reducing or eliminating one of the biggest barriers which is cost. What could grants like this mean for students and higher ed going forward? 

For the last five years, we have fully funded almost a third of our undergraduate students. That's over 5,000 students this academic year that paid zero dollars in tuition and fees. That is an extraordinary commitment from any university to the community at large around broadly accessible education. We're hoping that the expansion will add another 750 to 1,500 students to that number, bringing us up to perhaps the 40% mark. Even more important than that, I looked recently at the percentage of Denver Public School graduates that we are fully funding, and it's over 50% of Denver Public School seniors. They come to MSU Denver and are paying zero dollars in tuition and fees.

So I think the first level is making this promise, saying to a student and their family: you could go to college, you could actually figure this out. All of the cost barriers that you were initially thinking of, we could wipe off the slate and you could still do this. The second conversation, though, for our students is tuition and fees are just one part of the expense of being a college student today. You have to look at things like housing, transportation, books, child care for many of our students. Along with the costs associated with taking time out of a work schedule to go back to school. So if you're someone who's been working 40 hours a week and you drop down to 30 so that you have time for your classes, that's a direct cost going into your family's budget.

We know that the most common reason a student drops their classes or drops out after a semester are personal financial obligations. There's some research that shows that it takes as little as an unexpected $50 bill to derail a student's educational journey. We have a whole suite of services that seek to connect students to access public benefits. Things like SNAP and other resources out there so that students can meet their basic needs. We're just working so hard. Any time we can identify a potential barrier, including really important financial barriers, we're trying to dismantle them for our students. I think the students are grateful for their resources, and at the same time, I know that we're not doing enough because we're still losing students because of affordability issues related to their living situations. That's the next big hurdle for all of us in higher education. It’s to really identify the best strategies at scale to support getting more Coloradans access to higher education.

As the host of Morning Edition at KUNC, I have the privilege of delivering you the news in two ways — from behind the mic and behind the scenes. In addition to hosting Morning Edition, I’ll report on pressing news of the day and arts and culture on the Front Range.