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As tuition and cost of living climb in Colorado, families look out-of-state

Cost of higher education in Colorado 360
Posted at 10:29 PM, Apr 10, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-11 00:54:08-04

DENVER — As the costs to learn and live in Colorado continue to climb, many college-bound students and their families are finding that the most affordable options are farther away from home.

Denver7 went in-depth on the trend that’s scattering Coloradans across the country for higher education, and its implications — both positive and negative.

Claudia Llado considers her options

Like many high school seniors, Claudia Llado has spent a lot of time over the past couple of years planning for her future. She’s applied to more than a dozen universities, both close to home here in Colorado and as far away as other countries.

“It’s definitely really important, because — I don’t want to say you don’t want to mess up, but it’s where you’re going for the next four years,” she told Denver7 as she scrolled through her many submitted college applications on her laptop. “And that’s really important.”

Both of Llado’s parents went to the University of Colorado Boulder, so it was on the list of options from early on in the college decision process. As that process unfolded, however, Llado and her family came to learn that CU Boulder was not going to be their most affordable option.

“That was a big eye-opener for us,” said father Lucas Llado. “Colorado — everybody wants to live here or come spend time here. So demand is really high. Schools are, you know, [their] fees are crazy.”

As acceptance letters began to roll in for Llado, she and her family found tuition rates and scholarship offers at out-of-state and international universities made education less expensive. That has made them take a harder look at those farther-away options.

“College is a big decision,” said mother Josee Roberge. “You don’t necessarily want to get out of college with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. So yes, if it could be a little bit more affordable, definitely that would be nice.”

College costs in and out of Colorado

Llado and her family are not alone. Denver7 has spoken with several families and college planning professionals who detail the same scenario: Colorado families are finding it more affordable to attend colleges out of state despite the in-state tuition benefits they are entitled to here.

This is especially true for schools in the western United States, thanks to a program called the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE). WUE allows students residing in participating states to attend a university in another participating state for one and a half times the cost of in-state tuition or less. For example, a student from Colorado would pay $13,624 per year in tuition to attend the University of Colorado and $12,896 per year to attend Colorado State University. Through WUE, that same student could attend the University of Idaho for $12,616 per year in tuition; the University of Montana for $11,434 per year; or the University of Wyoming for just $8,438.

When room and board are factored in, Colorado’s higher cost of living puts many states even further ahead.

Claire Frey counsels college-bound students and their families

Denver7 spoke to Claire Frey, owner of Cadeau College Planning in Lone Tree, about the rising costs of college. Having made a career out of helping Colorado families make the best educational choices with their goals and budgets — including the Llado family — she has tracked a growing number of clients who received better financial offers away from home.

Public universities in other states are often cheaper options, both in tuition and cost of living, Frey explained. They also tend to offer her clients more financial aid.

“It’s just supply and demand. It’s economics,” Frey said. “We live in a beautiful state. [Colorado] schools are close to skiing and snowboarding. And I don’t think that’s a problem we’re going to see resolved because people are going to want to continue going to school in Colorado.”

Frey also encourages her clients to look into private schools. Many are skeptical at first, she said, because private schools often have higher tuition costs listed. However, she also finds private schools often offer a great deal more in scholarships, to the point that the actual cost of attendance is on par with or less than other state schools.

“Private schools are privately funded,” Frey said. “They have huge endowments and a ton of flexibility as to how they do their discounting and allocate aid.”

In Frey’s eyes, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Colorado’s universities have higher costs — it’s “great that Colorado is doing well,” she said — but she does see it as a good reason for families with high school students looking at college to keep an open mind as they start their search.

“Information needs to be shared with families to understand what other options exist,” she said. “There are colleges that are out of state that can actually be more affordable than our in-state options.”

Ruby Gilliland is enjoying the sun and the savings in Arizona

Ruby Gilliland is on the other side of this very decision. She has lived her entire life in Fort Collins, until now.

“I go to school at the University of Arizona,” Gilliland told Denver7 from her dorm room. “And I’m studying computer science.”

Gilliland looked at Colorado State University in her hometown, but like many others, found her best financial options came from elsewhere. The University of Arizona offered her a scholarship, and her other costs are lower in Tucson, as well. The warmer climate was an added bonus in her decision.

“This is great that I get to experience being out of state, and also it literally costs less than going to school in my hometown,” Gilliland said.

The palm trees and the savings have been great for Gilliland and her family. She’s found an added benefit — being away from home has broadened her horizons and helped her grow.

“I think it’s a nice thing to be prompted to look at, especially for a lot of people that just are like, ‘Oh, I’m here, I’m in Fort Collins, why not go to CSU?’” Gilliland said. “You know it’s like, okay, let’s kind of take a look outside and see what else you can do for the same amount or even less.”

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