When Colorado Mountain College’s President, Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser, speaks of the institution which she leads, she brims with pride in its past and enthusiasm about its future. CMC’s founding is an inspiring story of communities coming together in the American West to provide an important resource for their children. Over the past fifty years CMC has grown to become one of the most highly ranked community colleges in the nation and now serves 20,000 students a year. It has, however, never strayed from the legacy of its grassroots beginnings.
It all started, Dr. Hauser explains, in the early 1960s when David Delaplane, the new manager of the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce, pulled a folder labeled “Education Committee” out of his filing cabinet. All it contained were the names of a few committee members. Delaplane, who was struck by the lack of local opportunities for higher education, began by convincing that committee of the need for what was then known as a junior college. To do so, they found that they needed a district with at least 400 graduating high school seniors and property valuation of $60 million. In the ’60s on the Western Slope of Colorado that was a tall order, and there was no way that Glenwood could go it alone. To fulfill the state’s requirements would require that the committee from Glenwood bring together five contiguous counties to support their fledgling project. Back then, there were no thriving ski resorts. Aspen was just getting started and Vail was not founded until 1963. This vast area, which today is dotted with world-renowned tourist destinations was rural and sparsely populated, the main occupations ranching and mining.
Delaplane and his committee had to convince people in the communities, which made up Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle, Summit and Lake Counties to tax themselves to support the new college. So, he and his committee hit the road, taking their case to PTAs and Kiwanis Clubs and any other local organization where they could plead their case. A potent argument they used was that the new college would be affordable, especially for residents, whose children would be able to attend at in district rates.
In 1965, the hard work paid off, and voters in the five counties gave the new college their approval two to one. Two years later CMC opened its doors in two locations. Generous ranchers had given the college 800 acres for the Spring Valley campus near Glenwood and Lake County had provided land for the Timberline campus in Leadville. In-district tuition was $6.75 per credit hour.
Soon, the college began spreading its wings across the district’s other counties. And, it was always a community effort. Eagle County is a case in point. Artist Randy Milhoan arrived in Vail when the town of was barely a speck on the map. In 1969, he joined CMC as a part-time instructor and soon found himself in the thick of bringing continuing education to the valley, working with one rotary phone and a mimeograph machine from his home in Minturn, where he still lives. With the help of Susan Brown-Milhoan and local artists, Dan Telleen and J im Cotter, Milhoan created SummerVail, a workshop for art that took place in small wooden buildings dotting a meadow in what is now Ford Park, and ran from 1970 to 1984. “We offered, two-week long sessions – for credit and non-credit – including ceramics, painting, sculpture and even macramé,” recalls Milhoan, who was with the school for 15 years. Classes in other subjects were held in garages, churches and Vail’s original hostelry, the Vail Village Inn. The college engaged people in the valley to volunteer and share their expertise as part-time faculty members. It was a far-cry from the sleek new facility in Edwards, which is now CMC’s Eagle County home.
Today, CMC comprises 11 locations in nine counties. Three of its campuses are residential, and are situated against a backdrop of some of the Colorado Rockies’ most dramatic scenery. In addition to more than 25 associate degrees and more than 75 certificate programs, the school now offers bachelor’s degrees in applied science, business administration, elementary education, nursing and sustainability studies. And, its Isaacson School for New Media is one of the country’s first community college programs to teach digital media, journalism, marketing and design.
A lot has changed over the past 50 years, but CMC continues to fulfill the vision expressed in its mission statement: “We aspire to be the most inclusive and innovative student centered college in the nation, elevating the economic, social, and environmental vitality of our beautiful Rocky Mountain communities.” Throughout its expansion, CMC has maintained its commitment to affordability and excellence. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the school offers the nation’s third most-affordable public four-year degree and the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program named CMC as one of the nation’s 150 top community colleges.
The symbiotic relationship between CMC and its communities is flourishing. The college works closely with the 13 school districts. If offers open enrollment to its counties’ graduating seniors and helps to smooth their path to matriculation. It participates in the federal Upward Bound program, that provides guidance and tutoring to pre-college youth, particularly first-generation students. And for youngsters who are ready to undertake college work while still in high school, CMC offers its courses as an alternative to AP classes, awarding credit towards the associate degree for students who complete the work.
It was just two years after the founding of Vail that CMC opened its doors in the valley so, essentially, the two institutions have grown up together, sharing the same entrepreneurial spirit.
The college that began by offering, predominately, life-long learning courses out of a building in Cascade Village in Vail, has now become a campus that, while continuing to engage the “learner,” offers four bachelor degrees, numerous associate and certificate degree programs. Its degrees and certificates are also excellent vehicles for people already in the workforce, who would like to reinvent themselves through a new career.
Nikki Maline was working in real estate when she heard about CMC’s bachelor’s in sustainability. “It was exactly what I had been searching for and the program prepared me to do something I love,“ says Maline who is now the energy programs coordinator at Energy Smart Colorado at Walking Mountains Science Center.
The sustainability program also led Bailey Matthews, whose background is in the educational field, to change careers. “I realized that one can change things through information and outreach,” she says. And her commitment to the three pillars of sustainability, a healthy environment, a vital economy and social equity make her a perfect fit at Active Energies, whose community activities include helping low-income families lower their energy bills.
As well, the college offers courses that prepare students for employment in the diversified professions that dominate our resort-driven community such as the two- year Culinary Arts Degree program in which CMC has partnered with The Sonnenalp, Vail Resorts, The Four Seasons and The Ritz Carlton to embed full-time employment as part of an internship. And the new bachelor’s programs in business administration and sustainability studies have already opened many doors Eagle County for graduates.
“The BS in business administration that I received from CMC taught me concepts of sustainable and social impact as well as leadership techniques,” says Rebecca Kanaly, the executive director of United Way of Eagle River Valley. “The lessons I learned about entrepreneurship made it possible for me to run a valleywide nonprofit,” she says.
For Amy Connerton, it was her associate’s in science and training as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) that started her on a career path. She spent ten years as a medical assistant and is now the director of CMC’s Medical Assisting Program, which she helped to create. It is one of one five such community college programs in Colorado to be accredited by the American Association of Medical Assistants. “I want to give students the same excellent teaching and one-on-one guidance the CMC gave me,” says Connerton.
And for valley native, Mikayla Curtis, manager of strategic impact at the Eagle River Youth Coalition, the CMC certificate program in sustainability complemented her master’s degree in negotiation, conflict resolution and peacebuilding which she received from California State University, Dominquez Hills. “At CMC,” she shares, “I found passionate instructors whose non-judgmental teaching style encouraged discussion and exploration and independent thinking.
The Edwards campus, which has 4,000 students, is very committed to partnering with the entire valley community and its culinary arts program is just one example. “We have wonderful partners, where our whole goal is to meet the need of the employer where the students are full-time employees who gain that associates degree on time,” says Kathryn Regjo vice president at Colorado Mountain College, Edwards. “Students can work and finish their degree in two years, which is one of the fastest tracks to advancement in that industry.”
The school is also working on a partnership with the Vail Valley Medical Center to bring surgical technician associate degrees to the campus, where they will be providing the curriculum and the medical center will provide surgical labs at the Shaw Regional Medical Center. “The medical center will also help to financially support our faculty to run the labs and that makes such a high-end degree program an option,” Regjo says.
“So it’s really this relentless pursuit of collaboration and partnership to bring new degree programs to enhance offerings to really make great things happen within our community,” continues Regjo. “Last year we began offering basic certificates in phlebotomy and health information coding and billing, both high-need positions in not only the valley, but all of our mountain communities.
“Our degree in elementary education is serving a direct need in our county right now as our student population continues to grow and we have a high need to ‘grow our own teachers’ for the area. Now a person can live here, learn here, grow here and have a professional career here, all while understanding the expectations of education in our valley.”
As well, the Edwards campus is home to the largest dual enrollment program for the entire college. Last year, more than 700 students took at least one college class or more at no cost. This amounts to tuition savings of $332,000. Compared to CU Boulder’s in-state reduced tuition, that savings is over $2.5 million for those 704 students.
“We are a great resource for this valley and the over 4,000 students that we serve,” says Regjo enthusiastically. “And partnering with our local communities is really something the Edwards campus emphasizes.”