As we toast graduations around the valley this time of year, a curious and nagging fact continues to foul the celebratory punch bowl: The number of District 51 graduates obtaining any kind of post-secondary education lags the national average by 20 percent.

District 51 grads going to four-year college, getting an associates degree, obtaining a vocational/technical certification or even going to beauty school has fallen to 50 percent (actually up from 47 percent last year). The national average is almost 70 percent for those same post-secondary endeavors.

While we should celebrate our young students' talents and achievements, what lies ahead? A 20-percent differential is not a rounding error ­— it is the sign of a significant difference. In our case, a sign that our potential is not nearly being reached.

The nagging question is why?

It's not possible that students here aren't as smart as their counterparts around the nation. District 51 delivers an adequate educational experience, so it's not a matter of qualifications. The same financial assistance resources are available here as exist in other places, so it's not a matter access to funding. Colorado Mesa University, Western Colorado Community College, IntelliTec and other quality providers are right here, so it's not a matter of access to higher ed.

The answer may stem from an economic phenomenon called "Dutch Disease." It describes the apparent causal relationship between the economic boom of one specific sector (like timber, coal or oil) and a decline in other sectors (like manufacturing, tech or agriculture).

"Economists have long known that large resource discoveries could be harmful to economies in the long term," according to the Brookings Institute. (The term "Dutch Disease," incidentally, comes from studies on the effects of the Netherlands' gas discovery in the North Sea.)

Much of the economic model focuses on the movement of a nations' currency exchange rates from the influx and departure of large amounts of foreign investment — perhaps not so applicable to Grand Junction. But many of the economic principles underpinning Dutch Disease also accurately portray the effects on local economies.

Grand Junction's history of boom and bust is well documented. First came fruit growing in the 1880s, then uranium in the 1950s, then oil shale in the 1970s and natural gas in the 2000s — all with major busts in between.

It's been a punishing ride that has left the valley with an average household income 25 percent below the state average despite Herculean efforts to diversify our economic drivers. As a result of a prioritization of natural resources over human resources, the overall economy — though booming at times — suffers in the long term.

The most compounding side effect of a boom-and-bust existence, as explained by Dutch Disease, is a neglect of education. Natural capital (like natural resource extraction) crowds out investment in human capital, which generally provides more sustainable economic outcomes.

That is, in communities sitting on large natural resource wealth, the brilliant high school graduate who should have attended Harvard and returned home to start a successful advanced manufacturing operation didn't do that. Instead, he eschewed college and a career in business in favor of the gas patch and driving a water truck for $80,000 a year — a lure few 18-year-olds could resist.

On the other hand, if you live in a community where driving a truck for $80,000 is not available — well, then you might take advantage of your talents and attend the university.

Problem is, over the course of generations caught in this cycle, the value placed on education diminishes greatly. This results in effects like a lower local investment in education and a post-secondary going rate 20 percent below the national average.

It's a "Back to the Future" scenario where future outcomes can vary greatly with seemingly small practical decisions.

Economists expect America's greatest future export will be intellectual capital. Where will that leave places that are not now cultivating their future intellectual horsepower? Grand Junction, at 20 percentage points below average, has been literally eating its seed corn.

So, what is the cure for Dutch Disease? How do we reverse the symptoms, particularly as they affect our future crops of young brains?

There is no easy or clear answer. It's been generations in the making.

But we're hopeful. The ability of this community to set and achieve goals is nothing short of astonishing.

If this community resolves to increase our post-secondary-going rates to national averages by 2025, it can and will happen. The question is whether there is an appetite for the exertion necessary for this heavy a lift.

We hope so. Our blessing doesn't also have to be our curse.

Recommended for you