Colorado Mountain College seeks 4-year degree program

Claire Helmick, a student at Colorado Mountain College’s West Garfield campus in Rifle, checks on a vial of fruit flies Thursday in biology class. A Rifle firefighter, Helmick said she’d like to eventually pursue a four-year degree in fire science. But she has three children and said she wouldn’t be able to move elsewhere for schooling. If Colorado Mountain College could offer a four-year degree program, “it would definitely help,” Helmick said.

When Colorado Mountain College employee Erin Furman heard her employer wanted to begin offering four-year degrees, she immediately began thinking about going back to school.

“I certainly would be ready to attend as soon as the opportunity came around,” the Steamboat Springs resident and CMC computer technician said.

Furman’s story is similar to that of others living in the 12,000-square-mile district that the two-year college serves. The district stretches from Rifle to Summit County and Steamboat Springs to Buena Vista, an area the size of Maryland, but no baccalaureate-granting institution has a physical presence within it.

Furman, 54, grew up in Steamboat Springs and couldn’t afford to go to college when she was younger. But she graduated at age 50 from CMC with an associate’s degree in business.

When she considered pursuing a four-year degree, however, she was daunted by the cost of doing so via online classes or moving to the Front Range.

Then she heard of CMC’s plans. She’s interested in pursuing a business-degree program that would open doors to resort- related work.

“Geographically, if they were to offer a bachelor’s degree program … I probably would be the first to enroll,” Furman said.

Lin Stickler, the college’s executive vice president, said it was just such feedback from people around the CMC district that prompted it to pursue the idea of beginning to offer some four-year degrees.

The level of support within the district has grown since CMC’s board voted unanimously in November to pursue the idea, and the college has received letters of endorsement from mayors and school district superintendents, she said.

Now the proposal is being considered in the Colorado Legislature, and all of the state lawmakers representing the district have signed on as sponsors.

The Senate Education Committee approved it by a 7-1 vote, and it’s awaiting action by the full Senate. It has yet to be considered by the House.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education has come out against the bill because the department thinks Colorado Mountain’s plans should wait until completion of an ongoing strategic planning initiative covering the state’s entire higher education system.

“We don’t want to change the system while we’re studying it. This would be a pretty big change,” said John Karakoulakis, director of legislative affairs for the department.

The department isn’t opposing the concept of CMC offering four-year degrees, but letting it proceed now would presuppose the outcome of the planning process and result in a change that couldn’t be easily undone later, he said.

That process involves looking at how colleges in the state can best work together, and it addresses issues such as affordability and access. Stickler said affordability and access are goals that four-year degrees at CMC would help meet, and the college doesn’t see a point in waiting for a plan that could take up to four years to implement when its communities have immediate, unmet education needs.

Karakoulakis said the state isn’t conducting a four-year study, and it instead should be producing recommendations by the end of this year.

He said the state is talking with Colorado Mountain College and its bill sponsors to try to reach some agreement that doesn’t potentially run contrary to the planning initiative but lets the college move forward in a limited way.

Stickler said some of the areas for which CMC is considering offering four-year programs are business, nursing and teaching.

It hopes to begin offering some classes this fall, and business may be one of the first fields where it would be able to do so if the Legislature allows it.

CMC is not part of the state college system but is a junior college district that receives 12 percent of its funding from the state. Most of its funding comes from property taxes and tuition.

The college is not asking for any additional state funds for its four-year programs. Officials believe its existing facilities are adequate to offer some initial programs. It also doesn’t foresee a need to immediately hire more faculty, but when the need arises, tuition fees theoretically should cover the cost, Stickler said.

One potential obstacle to the bill involves concern it would result in fewer CMC students going on to four-year programs at other Colorado schools.

“That’s absolutely not our intent,” Stickler said. “We’re not trying to take other people’s piece of the pie. We’re trying to expand the pie.”

CMC argues it would be providing opportunities for further education to those, such as Furman, who otherwise wouldn’t continue their studies because they don’t want to leave their homes.

Stickler said at this point, no college has come out in opposition to the bill, adding nearby Mesa State College “has been very gracious about it,” Stickler said.

She said the change actually could help Mesa State because Mesa State is seeking to add additional graduate degrees. If CMC produced four-year graduates, some of them could funnel into Mesa State’s graduate programs, Stickler said.

Mesa State spokeswoman Dana Nunn said the college hasn’t taken an official position on Colorado Mountain College’s proposal.

But she added, “We have historically worked very collaboratively with CMC and we really wish them well in their endeavor.”

Western State College and Colorado Mountain College officials have scheduled a meeting on CMC’s proposal, Western State spokeswoman Tracey Koehler said.

Stickler said CMC looked into how many of its graduates from its 2008-09 academic year went on to Colorado colleges to pursue four-year degrees.

If all those graduates had stayed at Colorado Mountain rather than transferring, the biggest hit to any college’s population would have been 2 percent, she said.

The CMC graduates made up that percentage of students at Western State College, Regis University and Mesa State. They amounted to 118 of Mesa State’s student population of about 6,000.

Another 377 CMC graduates from the 2008-09 academic year transferred to out-of-state schools.

In state, Colorado State University was the destination of the most CMC grads, at 148, but that amounted to well below 1 percent of CSU’s total student numbers.

And Stickler said even if CMC had been offering four-year degrees, many of those students still most likely would have gone to CSU because CMC wouldn’t be offering the same number of programs.

Meanwhile, some current CMC students anxiously await the Legislature’s decision on the bill.

Two of them, Lexi Rivera of Edwards and Claudia Castillo of Eagle, prepared written comments for the Senate Education Committee hearing.

In her statement, Castillo, 19, said she hopes to become a psychiatrist.

But she doesn’t want to leave her home and family to continue her education, and she worries about what it would cost.

Rivera, 18, voiced similar concerns, and said being able to continue her schooling at CMC would help her achieve her eventual goal of getting a master’s in social work and/or psychology.

“If I could stay at home while earning a bachelor’s degree, I would save money, not have to pay rent, not worry about expensive tuition, and the cost of moving. I could save money toward getting my master’s degree,” Rivera told lawmakers.


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