Q&A: CMC President Carrie Besnette Hauser
After years in the public and private education sectors, Carrie Besnette Hauser was hired as Colorado Mountain College’s president and CEO in December 2013 to help guide the mountain region’s community college network toward better fulfilling the needs of both students and the local employers who look to hire graduates.
Now more than two years on the job — much of it spent commuting in her black Toyota between locations — the Carbondale resident is pleased to be moving toward CMC’s 50th anniversary celebration over the next 18 months. Ahead of the signature festivities at each of its 11 campuses throughout nine counties in fall 2017, the system will be launching a number of initiatives, including employer and community-wide surveys to better understand the needs of students, employers and partner entities, as well as a forthcoming new brand reveal.
Hauser is proudest of CMC’s ability to weather tough economic times for public education, maintaining the system’s position as the state’s most affordable college education and, still with relatively small class sizes, experiential-focused learning and location-specific programs. And yet, the college system still faces similar obstacles to many mountain community organizations, such as the increasing cost of housing, health care and with issues concerning accessibility of broadband technologies in some areas. She shares her thoughts with the Summit Daily here on what’s to come for CMC.
Summit Daily News: You’ve been in your position more than two years now. What have you learned in that time about the CMC system?
Carrie Besnette Hauser: I think it’s been more of an affirmation or augmentation of some of my perceptions. College president positions are hard jobs; they really are. In Colorado, they’re particularly hard in the public sector because the state has gone from call it the top-15 in the country in funding higher education to the glorious rank of 49th. It’s just been this huge divestment in public higher education. So I sort of knew what I was getting into. CMC is an incredible place because of its locally-supported funding structure, it makes it very unique in this country. And not just unique in Colorado, but really unique in the country. When this college movement was getting started in the mid-1960s, there was really nothing here. Aspen ski area was in its infancy, Vail resorts didn’t really exist — these mountain properties were just in their infancy. CMC has grown up under this geographic footprint, and therefore this property-tax base that we have is an incredible privilege. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do in the mountain communities — spread ourselves 12,000-square miles thin and wide, nine counties, 20,000 students, 11 campuses — if it weren’t for these property-tax values. So I knew coming in, I knew this was a special, unique place — how we’re funded and how we’re able to deliver the programing that we do.
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SDN: That said, you’ve recently undertaken some tuition increases for the 2016-17 academic year.
Hauser: There’s not a lot left when you’ve squeezed the toothpaste out because we spread it so wide and so far. We’re not sitting here flush with cash by any stretch, but we do have some real luxuries with how we’re financed. On the flipside of that, the oil and gas portion of our property-tax revenue will be down 50 percent next year. That’s a big piece, about $4.5 million. We also expect our costs will go up 5 percent, at least. That’s just maintaining the enterprise — that’s health-care costs and all that rising. So those two levers, which are going in the opposite directions, leave a gap, and the only thing we can control as an institution is tuition. We are so affordable, and we have been historically so — so low in our pricing structure that the board and the college leadership were looking at how you balance out that portfolio a little differently and a little bit better to smooth out some of the volatility in some of these baskets. Students who come to CMC are getting about a $15,000 a year degree. That’s how much it costs to educate a student. We get about 65 percent of our budget from property taxes in some form, so we have to sort of make up the other 35 percent, and we get a little bit of state dollars. So what is the student’s share? We want to buffer our in-district students the most, and we feel like around that 20-percent range balances that out, and that’s $5 a credit hour. And low-income students, they’ll still be able to leverage that for federal aid. There are already a little bit of fee differences for high-cost programs.
SDN: You’ve also added a new technology fee for 2016-17.
Hauser: Anymore, every student brings four or five devices — they bring a computer, a laptop; residence hall students have a gaming device of some sort. The usage is out of the roof, and we’re one of the few institutions in the state that hasn’t assessed a fee. That fee will really go to continuing to build our technology infrastructure to make sure that, as soon as you walk in, you have a signal. We’ve got some really hard-to-serve areas, so it costs a little bit more to provide that. The fees are pretty modest. For our residential campuses, $100 a semester for students in the residence halls. And then for anybody who walks in the door that’s taking a class, it’s based on your units, so it could be as low as $3 if you’re taking a three-credit class, up to $50 a semester if you’re a full-time student. It will still put us at a fraction of every other institution in the state in terms of our fee structure.
SDN: What are other challenges CMC faces moving forward?
Hauser: The housing question is the biggest one. It’s just such a challenge, even for students (who) want to come to school here, which is the most affordable college education you can get in the entire state. We have a group of elected officials (who) make up our board, and they’re looking into this in every one of our communities. All of our communities really suffer from this issue, but Summit County sort of rose to the top, and this is one where there might be some opportunities because of what the town of Breckenridge is doing with their housing. They’ve essentially said, ‘Would you like to be at the table with us?’ I don’t anticipate, at least not in the current conversations, that we’ll build traditional residence halls like we have at Spring Valley, Steamboat and Leadville. I anticipate that whatever we do will probably be part of some sort of public-private partnership, that maybe the town of Breckenridge pursues this housing opportunity, and then we may have a dedicated portion of that. We think it’s a really great way to step into this and to be a good partner. We live on land that was donated to us by the town of Breckenridge, so it makes a lot of sense for us to really continue to partner and figure out if we can solve some of these challenges together.
SDN: Where do things stand with the current strategic plan, Reaching New Heights?
Hauser: I cite the vision statement all the time. We aspire to be the most inclusive, innovative, student-centered college in the nation. If we do that, we elevate the economic, social and environmental sustainability and vitality of our Rocky Mountain communities. Our no-excuses goals in that vision statement are to be more accessible and to better represent the populations that we serve. Many of our counties have upwards of 50-to-70 percent low-income, first-generation Hispanic students. This is our workforce, and here we are in an open-access, affordable, incredibly accessible place; and yet, in 2015, we were still only at a 16- or 17-percent Hispanic enrollment college-wide. So we are doubling down on that. Last year, we launched the President’s Scholarship, which was a personalized letter from me to every single local, graduating senior in our nine-county area, offering them instant admission and $1,000 head start. And at $62 a credit hour, that just goes so far. The only things they have to do are apply for financial aid and enroll full time. We know that if students enroll full time, they’re more likely to graduate — particularly students from low-income backgrounds. If we can offset with our $1,000 toward that first year, they bring in financial aid and hopefully don’t have to work as much, they can go full-time, and they can actually finish that degree, we’re a much more inclusive and inviting place. That’s the big vision of the strategic plan, and everything is built around that, and now the question is, ‘How do we launch ourselves into the next 50 years?’
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