Can K-12 public school choice help tackle the skyrocketing cost of college?

College tuition in Colorado has almost tripled in the past ten years. An increase in the price of college means many students have to borrow more, and today, the average student loan borrower in Colorado has over $25,000 in student debt. Combined, Americans owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, surpassing auto debt and credit card debt. In Colorado, tight budgets and a limited ability to raise new revenue leaves state leaders with few options for lowering the price of a degree, and in fact, the state could see a $20 million decrease in higher education funding.

Solving the student debt crisis and making college more affordable won’t happen overnight, and there’s no silver bullet. It’ll take innovative solutions and reforms to many aspects of our higher education system. For example, students ought to be able to use openly licensed, free, peer-reviewed textbooks for their college courses, instead of giving thousands of dollars to textbook publishers. And borrowers with debt should be able to pay back their loans in a practical, affordable way through income-based repayment, where your payment on your loan is a manageable percentage of your income.

To truly address this issue though, we need to think outside the box and even beyond our higher education system. What if we could reduce the cost of college while a student is still enrolled in a K-12 school?

This week is National School Choice Week. Thanks to innovations in public school choice in Colorado, lowering the price of a degree during a student’s K-12 years is already becoming a reality.

Just a few weeks ago, I visited with students at Colorado Early Colleges Fort Collins High School. At this free, public charter school, students take dual enrollment courses beginning in 9th grade. Students accumulate college credits as they complete their high school coursework and graduate high school with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. They’re already halfway towards a bachelor’s degree, and they’ve done it for almost no cost.

Next year, the St. Vrain Valley School District is opening a new school, Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools, commonly known as P-TECH. P-TECH in St. Vrain will be modeled after a successful program in New York and combine high school, dual enrollment, and specialized STEM courses through a partnership with Front Range Community College and IBM. Students will graduate with a high school degree, an associate’s degree, and real-life professional skills in their chosen field, all at no cost to them.

This week, we celebrate school choice and schools like Colorado Early Colleges Fort Collins High School and P-TECH. Making college more affordable is one of the most pressing issues in our nation today, and it’s at the top of my agenda in Congress. In order to solve this crisis, we need to be innovative and think beyond the traditional school of thought. Both of these schools, and the many other public schools throughout Colorado, are helping us do just that.

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