A proposal that would make Colorado the first state in the nation to issue vouchers (search) to college students is on the way to the governor after lawmakers and university officials argued it may be the only way to save public higher education.

The bill, which Gov. Bill Owens (searchsupports, would give each high school graduate a stipend of about $2,400 a year to use at any public college or university in Colorado and three private ones.

The bill also opens the door to letting state schools circumvent constitutional amendments limiting government spending.

"The governor is very proud that Colorado is going to be the first state in the country to utilize this tool. The rest of the country is going to be watching to see how this works," said his spokesman, Dan Hopkins.

The legislation is intended to help protect higher education from budget cuts stemming from a state deficit expected to reach at least $100 million next year. The change also would give public schools more flexibility in raising tuition.

University officials, including University of Colorado (searchPresident Betsy Hoffman, told lawmakers that without vouchers, state revenue shortfalls combined with constitutional amendments that restrict government spending in Colorado could force institutions to close their doors or go private within six years.

Students could use the vouchers to earn up to 145 credit hours — enough for a bachelor's degree.

Students at three private schools — Regis University, the University of Denver and Colorado College — would be eligible for half the stipend. Opponents said inclusion of those schools would draw money away from state institutions and could be challenged in court.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said no other state has attempted a voucher program on the scale being tried in Colorado.