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To spread word of free tuition and boost low-income enrollment, one university goes on Western Slope high school tour

Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall visits Rifle High School on April 9, 2024, as the university starts rolling out the CMU Promise program, which offers tuition to students from low-income families. (Stina Sieg/CPR News)

In Colorado, fewer than half of high school graduates go on to college, well below the national average. In recent years, universities across the state have stepped up efforts to change that by offering free tuition to low-income students.

Colorado Mesa University is one of the latest. As the fall semester gets closer, university President John Marshall is touring mostly rural high schools across the Western Slope. In communities like Nucla, Craig and Cedaredge, he’s sharing this message: College is possible.

In a town of 10,000 people, Rifle High School is surrounded by bright-green cow pastures and distant mountains. On a recent morning, Marshall spoke to an auditorium filled with many students who could become the first college graduates in their family.

“One of the things we’re really focused on is not just how to get you to college but help you be successful once you get there,” he told the group, with a student on hand to provide translation in Spanish.

Teens are notoriously hard to read, but as Marshall wrapped up his presentation, several students waited to talk to him more in depth about a new university program called the CMU Promise. Starting this fall, it will give free tuition to Western Slope students whose families earn $65,000 or less a year.

Even as a little kid, 17-year-old senior Randy Martinez Gomez knew he wanted to be an inventor and that going to college would help build a solid foundation for his future. But college didn’t always feel attainable.

“The amount of money is often really scary,” he said. “You start thinking, 'Is that a toll you want to put on your family?’”

Martinez Gomez’s parents are Mexican immigrants who didn't get a chance for higher education, but they’ve been saving money to help pay for their son’s college for years.

Martinez Gomez says the free tuition and the school’s aid package gives him a lot of hope.

Junior Laura Gonzalez, also 17, said student debt is a constant topic of conversation in the media – and in her own life.

“I can name about three people that are in student debt right now that are close to me and are still paying it off to this day, even though it's been years – even before I was born – that they went to college,” she said.

She wants to help people stuck in that debt when she becomes a state representative one day.

Gonzalez, whose family is also from Mexico, knows that many children of immigrants don’t apply to college because they worry immigration officials will use government forms against their family who may not have documentation.

“This is the opportunity that they're giving you because they want you to go to college,” she said, “and it's not because they want to take your parents away.”

Gonzalez hopes the CMU Promise program will help build trust and start a conversation that will bring in more students with backgrounds like hers.

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.