Living outside the Front Range means being left behind

By Ryan Heckman

Growing up in rural Granby, I saw something that made a very deep and lasting impression on me: watching my good friend’s father — a hard worker, father of three and a role model in our community — coming home in a state of utter defeat after being laid off at the Henderson Mine. I will never forget my friend’s facial expression as we eavesdropped on this family tragedy.

It was not an atypical thing to happen in our town, where the struggle to stay employed was real and brutal. But for me, still in grade school, it was confusing. How could ambitious, hardworking people find themselves cut off from the simple opportunity to work?

It’s a story of untapped potential that continues today. Those of us living in Boulder or Denver might be blissfully unaware that even as we make massive strides in everything from technology to medical research to the power of entrepreneurship, some deeply determined people living outside of the Front Range are being left behind.

New data bear this out: in a survey released in April by Colorado Mesa University, over 50 percent of respondents living in the Denver metro region rate their local economy as excellent or very good, compared to only 20 percent on the Western Slope. Similarly, 57 percent of respondents in the Denver metro area agree that they are pleased with job opportunities in their community compared to 35 percent on the Western Slope.

Those who manage state policy know there are two Colorados. One with fathers and mothers looking for work to pay the bills and barely able to make ends meet, and the others who live near Denver and are much more likely to thrive.

It’s especially ironic, given that rural Coloradans are the closest thing to modern pioneers. These are the folks who embody Colorado’s frontier spirit, the ones that are not afraid of real work the hard way. We should strive to harness that bold energy and grit and elevate impoverished regions outside our privileged bubble.

One of the best opportunities, a fulcrum that can provide the leverage to elevate rural economies, is in local colleges. Unfortunately, in this very place where policy at the state level should create opportunity, I fear it is actually forging a new generation of ambitious failure.

As a business leader, it’s frustrating to see. Colorado has some incredibly capable leadership running our colleges and universities. The educational infrastructure is there — even in towns near Granby — and ready to step up to the challenge.

These rural communities breed kids who grew up on ranches, who have had to work hard and make sacrifices just to go to school. We have this untapped workforce that’s just ready to crush it. But they are rarely given the opportunity to pursue opportunity.

Given the raw potential and grit that you’ll find in places such as Durango, Pueblo and Grand Junction, I see it as a massive disconnect that there is such a paucity of capital provided to rural Colorado community colleges and universities.

The entire Colorado community college system, for instance, receives about half the funds that the University of Colorado and Colorado State University systems receive. One could argue that our state’s financial resources are being invested based upon popular convention versus native potential.

This, despite the fact that some of these rural schools demonstrate astonishing efficiency in how they use funding. For instance, Colorado Mesa University has eliminated the dean position, asking their department heads to do more. They have smaller class sizes in order to deliver a better focus on each student. They are innovating despite the headwinds of an antiquated accreditation system. This ability to stretch a dollar should be rewarded, but it’s not.

The result is as predictable as it is unfortunate: the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree is over 50 percent along the Front Range, from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, as well as in the wealthier ski resort areas. However, the figure is under 25 percent, sometimes under 20 percent, in many outlying regions like the Grand Valley.

I know from very personal experience that there is an opportunity to help rural kids move through higher education to better things. Many of my classmates in Granby were smarter and more capable than I was, yet never got the same shot. This same vigor and determination has inspired our rural Colorado colleges to innovate, to do more with less, and to provide opportunities to capable and underprivileged young people.

But there is hope. Recently, Colorado Mesa University attempted to fast-track a health-care program to provide much needed training to expand the local workforce — physician assistants, physical therapists, and occupational therapists. Despite being initially rejected by a state commission, the university’s president, Tim Foster, appealed the decision while mobilizing intense public support and it was then approved. Should it have been this hard? No, but it is a good story about everyone ultimately doing the right thing.

Helping rural colleges match high demand jobs with a workforce ready to work should be a no-brainer. What is smarter: helping fellow Coloradans, our resilient pioneers, to build their skills, get a job and pay their taxes? Or providing them with Medicaid and welfare later on?

Let’s join together to do the right thing. Let’s ask our current public servants and large field of gubernatorial candidates on both sides of the aisle to lean into this catalytic opportunity.

It’s not a matter of fairness or charity.  It’s a matter of maximizing the potential of all our people — not just those who happen to live on the right side of the Continental Divide.

Ryan Heckman is co-founder and senior adviser of the Colorado Impact Fund and president and CEO of ICON Eyecare. This op-ed submission was first published in the Denver Post.


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