Pikes Peak Community College and Harrison School District 2 have partnered to offer graduating D-2 seniors a tuition-free two years at the college.

The graduating class of 2020 is the first group of Harrison School District 2 students to take advantage of the Dakota Promise Scholarship at Pikes Peak Community College. 

The scholarship, which pays up to $5,000 a year for tuition and fees, is available to all Harrison seniors who have attended a D-2 school for at least a year and have a cumulative grade point average of 2.5 or higher in their junior and senior years (currently lowered to 2.25 because of the COVID-19 pandemic). Additional resources provided to Dakota Promise scholars include free bus rides and food assistance. To be eligible for continued funding, students have to complete 24 credit hours with a 2.0 or better GPA each academic year. 

The scholarship is funded by The Dakota Foundation, The Legacy Foundation and the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative. Currently, 136 Harrison students are Dakota Promise scholars at PPCC.

“PPCC President, Dr. Lance Bolton, started this program as a pilot,” explained Selinea Moore-Allen, an academic resource specialist for the college. “We chose Harrison District 2 because it’s the most economically challenged school district in our region. We definitely want to get more students from [the district] enrolled into PPCC. Our No. 1 message to the students is, ‘College is affordable.’ The Dakota Promise program is about equal access, letting our communities know that whatever barriers they have, Dakota Promise and PPCC is here to help.”

The scholarship is making a difference for students in Southeast Colorado Springs who would otherwise have struggled with financing a college education. 

“I wasn’t able to qualify for any scholarships, but with the Dakota Promise I was able to qualify for two years of tuition for free,” said Kaija Johnson, a Harrison High School graduate. “I took advantage of that opportunity.”

In addition to the financial assistance, the Dakota Promise program provides important moral support and coaching for students navigating their first year of college. 

“Although Dakota Promise’s primary message is that tuition is free, money alone won’t do it all,” said Moore-Allen. “Our academic coaching plays a major part in our scholars’ success. Dakota Promise coaches are designed to have a meaningful interaction with our scholars to discuss success plans. Scholars are required to meet with their coaches at least three times a semester — at the beginning, middle and end — so we can coach and guide them through their semesters. While our coaches are discovering a need to help, students are identifying obstacles. As coaches, we provide solutions and access to academic resources.”

For students, the coaching provides extra help in a new environment. 

“It’s a very comforting experience,” said Mi’Asia Smith, a Sierra High School graduate and Dakota Promise student. “They’re really there for you when you’re first enrolling.”

In addition to the individual coaching, provided by Moore-Allen and two other part-time coaches, PPCC provides Dakota Promise students regular workshops on everything from filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to financial literacy and employment assistance. 

“We have tutoring for all subjects available in the learning commons,” said Moore-Allen. “We also have a counseling center available, and a community food table. One of the other resources our scholars didn’t know much about is a free bus ride on the back of their [student] IDs.”

Many D-2 students, like Smith, are already familiar with PPCC due to course offerings provided during high school. 

“I was already taking dual enrollment classes,” said Smith, “so I was like, ‘I might as well take this opportunity, at least for the first two years.’ It really gave me the opportunity to know that I do have an opportunity to go to school.”

The district offers high school students the opportunity to take college classes before graduation, which further reduces the financial burden of a college education. 

“We do have a really robust career and technical education and concurrent enrollment program in HSD2,” said Christine O’Brien, the district’s public information officer. “We partner with PPCC, Colorado State University-Pueblo. We typically graduate about 50 to 55 high school students from Sierra and Harrison with their associates degree one week before high school graduation. It has been a wonderful program for our students. Those students then enter a four-year institution as a junior in most cases. Many students leave HSD2 with college credits through CSU-Pueblo that provide them with a number of college credits while still in high school.”

For Moore-Allen, whose children are also D-2 students, the Dakota Promise program is a way for her to help the young people in her community succeed. 

“I’m excited to be a part of this team, doing this awesome work,” she said. “My kids also go to Harrison. I had a graduating senior last year, and she went to Nebraska, but she was offered this scholarship, and then I have a senior this year graduating from Harrison. Most of the students that walk across the Harrison stage I already know. I’ve known them since elementary school. Some of them went to school with my kids at Oak Creek Elementary School, and it’s just an awesome feeling to see these kids grow up so fast and be successful.” 

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.