Big universities are reaching into rural Colorado where shrinking share of high school grads go to college

GUNNISON – Higher education lags across open expanses of the Rocky Mountain West where distances to campuses can exceed 100 miles and, in rural Colorado, barely half of high school graduates enroll in college.

But on a recent spring morning here at a new $80 million engineering and computer science building in windswept cattle country, 13 hoodie-clad students were burrowing down on a challenge. Their Data Analysis and Experimental Methods professor Lauren Cooper, lured from a tenure-track position in California, had distributed fabrics with microscopic pores that breathe while blocking snow and rain. Cooper instructed the students to figure out how to test and compare “waterproofness” of the recreational gear industry’s latest garments.

“What would the mechanical system look like to perform that test?” Cooper asked, setting a due date for presenting solutions. Her students, huddled in four groups, kept working after class ended.

Their intensity and this state-of-the-art facility at Western Colorado University buck the norm of higher education “deserts” in rural America. It reflects an emerging new approach pioneered in Colorado to boost opportunities. The state’s main public universities based along the urbanized Front Range – the University of Colorado and Colorado State University – are starting to offer engineering and other degrees at public four-year partner university campuses in rural hubs closest to where students live — no longer requiring travel to their campuses in Boulder and Fort Collins.

The big schools have deployed Cooper and a dozen or so other instructors to live in rural hubs and work at the partner institutions, which previously lacked accredited programs for engineering.

Students take foundational courses for the first two years at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Fort Lewis College in Durango, or Adams State University in Alamosa.  Then they “transfer” to become CU or CSU students for the second half of their studies – but don’t physically move. They stay closer to home, saving money on tuition and avoiding hefty Front Range bills for lodging and food — yet end up with a “brand-name” CU or CSU degree.

“We’re taking that CU brand name to Gunnison,” said Jeni Blacklock, a CU engineering instructor who left Boulder and runs the program at Western Colorado University.

The three CU instructors here help teach 150 students working toward engineering and computer science degrees. Eight other CU instructors are posted at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, where 280 students are enrolled in courses at a new engineering facility.  The emerging program at Fort Lewis College enlists doctoral candidates from CU’s medical school in Denver to train nursing students for work in tribal areas around the Southwest. The CSU program, starting this fall in refurbished Adams State buildings, builds on an agricultural sciences partnership from 2017 and initially will put 20 students on a path into engineering.

Around the nation, unequal access to higher education in rural areas feeds into a broader imbalance where most residents of cities such as Denver hold college degrees while less than a third of rural residents hold degrees and, when they do, often must leave town to harness their skills in higher-paying jobs. A Jain Family Foundation report found access to college is worst in the Rocky Mountain region. Educators warn decreasing education attainment in rural areas can accelerate economic decline for rural people.

But here in Gunnison, a sometimes frigid agricultural hub on Colorado’s western slope, the rural students in Cooper’s course, on track to graduate next year with CU engineering degrees, were mulling multiple opportunities.

“I knew I didn’t want to go to a larger city. I love small towns,” said Kaiya Firor, 21, a valedictorian and track star from Hotchkiss (pop. 890), two hours across mountains from Gunnison, where her family herds sheep.

Colorado School of Mines, Montana State University and University of Wyoming coaches recruited Firor. But WCU’s NCAA Division 2 track team appealed. She wanted to combine athletics with a robust engineering curriculum. And the financial aid means she’ll graduate debt-free, encouraging her to pursue graduate studies in biomechanics or renewable energy.

She’s interested in well-paid work “that can help fix the world,” she said. Looking back at her politically conservative hometown, she remembers an aversion to higher learning and economic pain from the demise of coal mining.

Offering CU degrees closer to home “makes it a lot more affordable,” she said. “If we don’t let rural people get a college education, or at least have a chance to get an education, the world will never change.”

Similarly, her classmate Nicholas Hancock, 21, who grew up near Edwards in the Eagle River Valley, prioritized staying in western Colorado and being able to ski. Hancock had started college at a pricey private liberal arts school north of Chicago focusing on physics before the COVID-19 pandemic. “And I was looking to get more into engineering, instead of just physics,” Hancock said. CU-Boulder Buffs black-and-gold culture and partying wasn’t really for him, he said. “This is cheaper. You still get a CU degree, which is a really highly-rated degree in the engineering field.”

For more than a century, young Americans in rural areas seeking higher education have had to hunt beyond the horizon, traditionally moving to cities. That’s where public universities offer the most opportunities, especially in sciences and engineering that require costly facilities.

Now, a decreasing percentage of high school graduates in rural Colorado enroll in college, a Denver Post review of state data found. The overall statewide college-going rate is about 56%, below the national average of 63% and rates above 70% in New York and other eastern states. In rural Colorado, 51.4% of high school graduates in 2019 enrolled in college, according to Colorado Department of Higher Education data, down from 55.8% in 2016.

“Public universities understand that their mission is to meet the public need, and everybody understands that rural students are underserved,” said Sheila Martin, vice president for economic development and community engagement for the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities.

CU and CSU expansion into rural Colorado “is a matter of fairness, equality and economic mobility for people who are being left behind,” Martin said.

“Rural areas are losing population, losing tax revenue. A lot of this has stemmed from lower education attainment,” she said. “And it’s really important that there be opportunity to stay in a rural community. Parents don’t want their kids to leave and not come back. If you grow up in Denver, you have lots of options for higher education without having to leave home.”

On CU’s main campus in Boulder, administrators embraced a push into western rural areas amid rising competition among universities nationwide to maintain enrollment. CU’s interim president Todd Saliman, following a swing through rural Colorado last fall, also was looking at possibilities for boosting higher education on eastern high plains.

“It is absolutely a problem when rural Coloradans, and rural Americans, don’t have easy access to higher education. It is higher educators’ job to make sure we provide that access,” Saliman said in an interview. “Getting more Coloradans to go to college is good for Colorado and is what we’re all about. If these partnerships result in more college graduates staying in Colorado, that’s even better,” he said.

“We have serious workforce needs in the state. We’re worried about meeting those workforce needs. Anything we can do to keep talented college graduates in Colorado is good for Colorado.”

CSU officials said offering degrees at Adams State University in the San Luis Valley will help reach a goal of attracting more students from Hispanic communities. Adams State has been designated “a Hispanic Serving Institution,” said CSU engineering professor and department chair Christian Puttlitz, coordinating the partnership in Alamosa with ASU physicist Matt Nehring, the interim director of math, science and technology.

“This degree leads into the engineering profession. We also want to create a more diverse mechanical engineering profession,” Puttlitz said.

CSU administrators are recruiting faculty to move to Alamosa starting in 2024, he said. “We’ll also be hiring, depending on how many of our current faculty want to take advantage of this.”

Among students poised to enroll, Del Norte High School graduate Jason Orr, 21, has completed the first two years of studies including calculus at Adams State. Lacking opportunities in Alamosa a couple years ago, he moved to CSU’s main campus in Fort Collins, intending to complete an engineering degree. But in the city he grew “tired of doing the day-to-day, going to class, paperwork” and decided to take a break and gain perspective by traveling around the country.

Now he’s back, calculating he can live at home 32 miles from Alamosa in Del Norte and combine engineering courses toward a CSU degree with working 25 hours to earn $500 a week.

Orr reckoned that, in the future, a CSU degree will help him afford housing in the San Luis Valley – not possible, he said, along Colorado’s Front Range. And while the engineering degree might not help him immediately find high-paying jobs in the valley – “you usually get the same job here whether you go to school or not” – he anticipated increasing opportunities designing bridges, helping irrigation farmers optimize use of dwindling water supplies – and maybe working with entrepreneurs moving into the valley.

“I did like the bigger size at CSU, more going on, more sports. It looked fun,” Orr said. “But down here, it is super personalized with your teachers. They always have time. It is nicer down here.”

The Colorado approach to boosting rural higher education began in 2008 at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, where graduates began receiving CU degrees in 2011. Since then, 194 students at CMU have earned CU degrees, including 30 last year, school officials said.

“You come to Colorado Mesa University. You live in Grand Junction all four years. The first two, you pay CMU tuition and are taught by CMU faculty. Then you transfer to CU but still attend class here in Grand Junction. You pay CU tuition but you save on room and board. Overall, this is more affordable that going to CU-Boulder,” said Sarah Lanci, a CMU engineering professor teaming with CU instructors.

“The CU faculty are here just to teach, not focus on research with teaching second. Professors here will know your name,” said Lanci, who grew up in rural Wyoming west of Pinedale combining school with work raking hay and helping raise cattle. “Students from rural communities want to feel like they belong. They want to see themselves in a school’s demographic. These bigger institutions, reaching out to smaller communities and developing these partnership programs, are giving students a chance to study closer to home, stay with communities where they’re comfortable, and allow them to pursue higher education degrees and still be close to home and able to help,” she said.

“We’re comfortable with what we were raised around. We’re comfortable with the people, the politics, the way and quality of life where we grew up.”

Local economic leaders have welcomed the partnership programs that provide engineering and practical skills – a utilitarian approach they refer to as “workforce development.” CU and CSU officials say they’re on board with tailoring courses to sync with company needs in an area.

“Look at Boulder, look at Fort Collins, and look at the high tech companies there. It’s no coincidence companies locate here because we provide a workforce,” Puttlitz said in Fort Collins. “Now, if we’re able to develop a workforce in Alamosa, Adams State might become more of an economic engine to get more companies to invest in the San Luis Valley.”

Students still are required to take general courses such as English and U.S. government. At WCU, Blacklock has been meeting with humanities faculty to explore possible collaboration for ethics and other courses for which federal grants could be sought.

CMU philosophy professor Anthony Miccoli, uphill from the sleek new engineering, math and computer science facility in his book-packed office, said he’d been enthusiastic to teach “philosophy of technology” and other courses for engineering students. They’ll benefit from the critical thinking and communication skills that have been a school forte, Miccoli said.

“We’re not a CU ‘satellite campus’ and we’re not going to be a satellite campus. This is truly a partnership. It is still a humanities-focused school,” he said.

Teamwork across disciplines will help students become “more well-rounded engineers” needed to tackle hard challenges. “We must think about ‘mitigation’ because we’re past the point of no return on climate change. We will need technology. We have to invent things.”

Beyond rural Colorado, the emerging partnerships are attracting urban high school graduates, too. Carolyn Goodwin, 20, left her home in metro Denver for Gunnison after checking out CU-Boulder.

She loves swimming. CU-Boulder lacks a varsity program. WCU runs an NCAA Division 2 team.

“Swimming helps me do better in school and, if it was possible, I wanted to pursue that,” she said. Other advantages include access to nature – she enjoys mountain biking and rafting. “And the class size?  There are usually about 12 of us. All the professors know us by name – definitely more helpful for me.”

She’s aiming high, planning to apply to Navy officer training school after she graduates next year. “I actually want to fly,” she said. “Fighter jets.”

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