SUMMIT COUNTY - As a former student of Colorado Mountain College, state Sen. Dan Gibbs wants to see the institution flourish and grow. His recently introduced bill proposes to do just that, by allowing its numerous campuses to provide four-year degrees.
"You should be able to live where you study and study where you live. College is a foundation for life," Gibbs said.
According to Gibbs, Colorado's mountain communities are under-served regarding higher education: CMC's service spans a 12,000 square-mile radius with seven campuses spread throughout the region.
As of now, the community college only provides two-year associate's degrees. CMC's board of trustees already approved making four-year degrees a reality, but the measure must be passed by the state Legislature first.
"It's a barrier for communities to not have access to four-year degrees," said Lin Stickler, executive vice president of CMC. "It's time for us to start providing that option. For quite a while, CMC received feedback from the community for a four-year degree."
Gibbs agreed. "The calls have been ringing off the hook. People think it's a great idea."
He also said expanding CMC's degree offerings would be good for Summit County's business community, as it would diversify the local tourism-based economy.
"It would be a huge plus for the area," he said.
Even so, Colorado's Department of Higher Education has its reservations.
"The department being opposed to it (the mountain college bill) is based on giving the strategic planning committee a chance to look at ideas such as this and not change the rules of the game while it's being studied," said John Karakoulakis, spokesman for the Department of Higher Education. "We're not taking a position on the concept, but on the timing of it and in the context of the mission of the strategic planning committee."
According to Karakoulakis, the Dept. of Higher Education's strategic planning committee is supposed to come up with recommendations for the future of higher education by the end of the year. The group's mission is to review the whole system of higher education - from examining institutional missions, to reviewing the government structure of higher education, to addressing funding, and increasing and improving student access and success.
"I think the timing is understood by the steering committee, and they're willing to try to expedite issues when it's possible," Karakoulakis added.
But Stickler has concerns with waiting for a new strategic plan. She said she thinks the new CMC legislation is already aligned with the state's core goals - to increase completion and lower costs for degrees; and to improve access and success for Colorado high school grads, especially Hispanic and low-income students.
Gibbs and Stickler both noted that the bill would create no additional expense to the state, as CMC schools are funded locally, and four-year degree start-up costs could be absorbed by the institution.
"It won't take away state funds for higher education," Gibbs said.
CMC public information officer Debra Crawford noted that if the initiative passed, CMC would remain a community college (or junior college, as it states in the bill).
"Lots of people on the Western Slope aren't getting advanced degrees because they can't leave home due to work and family commitments, etc.," Crawford said. "Online degrees don't work for everybody. We're trying to give High Country folks more options. We'd love to have it ready for next fall. ... It's remaining to be seen how long it will take for all the pieces to fall into place."