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College voucher plan becomes law in Colo.

DENVER -- Governor Bill Owens signed Colorado's first-in-the-nation college voucher plan into law yesterday, calling it a landmark step that will empower thousands of students.

Owens said the vouchers send a message to high schoolers that college is not out of reach and that state money -- up to $2,400 per voucher -- is available to help.

"Quality education isn't about institutions, it's about the future of our students," he said.

Stipends will be available to all Colorado undergraduate students who qualify for in-state tuition.

Every year, the Legislature would set the value of the stipend based on the state budget. For the fall of 2005, when the program is set to begin, the amount is set at $2,400 for students attending a public institution in Colorado, and $1,200 for low-income students attending three private institutions: Regis University, which is a Catholic institution, the University of Denver, and Colorado College. The money can go to religious schools, as long as they are not "pervasively sectarian."

The National Conference of State Legislatures says no other state has attempted a voucher program on such a scale.

But students might not get the full $2,400 this year because of budget problems, state lawmakers have said. They said the amount will have to be cut to $1,600 unless voters ease fiscal restraints embedded in the state Constitution or agree to use millions of dollars Colorado gets from the settlement with the tobacco industry.

Without one of those steps, higher education and Medicaid will be on the chopping block when lawmakers have to cut an estimated $254 million next year, said Representative Brad Young.

Owens said Colorado has spent about $700 million on higher education each year, giving the money directly to the colleges.

"The institutions will now compete for students because state aid now arrives on campus with the student," he said. "The more students you attract, the better your institution can do."

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