When you think of Aspen or Vail, Colorado, it’s most likely images of waxed snowboards, iridescent Oakley sunglasses and plume layers of snow. And your assumption would be correct: ski resort retreats for the world’s wealthiest are getting so popular here that Aspen’s airport, routinely frequented by private planes, might expand.
But ski aficionados can’t cruise down a mountain face without operators or first responders prepared to alleviate any slip-ups. Intertwined with the region’s resort economy is Colorado Mountain College, the bedrock postsecondary institution across eight counties.
“We’re sitting in a super, super polarized economic community,” says Carrie Hauser, president of Colorado Mountain College. “You either have three jobs or three homes in the region.”
Founded in 1965 to support the rural region’s local workforce and emerging ski resort scene, CMC has burst into eight community campuses and three residential campuses, thanks partly to a flood of economic investment and migration of ultra-wealthy individuals exacerbated by the pandemic.
Consequently, CMC’s responsibility to develop workforce-ready learners has ballooned. As a dual-mission institution, it offers its students a plethora of program offerings: two-year associate’s and four-year bachelor’s degrees, as well as short-term CTE certificates and apprenticeships. The practical, community-centered program offerings have helped increase its enrollment this past fall, VailDaily reports.
“We know what our job is: produce nurses, teachers, law enforcement, first responders, resort management professionals and ski resort operators,” Hauser says. “It’s our responsibility to shareholders.”
But as straightforward as CMC’s mission may seem, the region’s bifurcated household income distribution has strained housing options for those earning modest wages, says Hauser.
Topping the president’s to-do list is expanding affordable housing for its students and equipping the region’s workforce with the right skills to thrive in rural Colorado’s icy, mountainous terrain—no matter their age or the region’s needs.
Expanding affordable housing
Thanks to a local property tax mill levy, CMC boasts one of the most affordable degrees, with tuition around $100 a credit hour. However, the North-Central Colorado region has become so expensive to live in that 3/4 of students’ expenses is their cost of living, says Hauser. Everyone, from students to faculty, faces housing challenges.
“[Affordable housing] is our form of financial aid,” she says.
The college has since invested $45 million to construct apartment-style student housing at four campuses, which opened this past fall.
Grooming tomorrow’s workforce
With a “footprint the size of Maryland,” CMC is one of the region’s largest postsecondary institutions for upskilling learners.
Consequently, its ties to the K12 community run deep. The state of Colorado granted CMC over $2 million to pad surrounding rural school districts with the latest technology to bring college coursework and dual enrollment opportunities to high school students online.
“Thirty percent of our enrollment is high school students that are concurrently enrolled with us because we’re the opportunity for them to pursue college courses,” says Hauser.
But CMC’s mission doesn’t stop there. They have a responsibility to students of all ages coming back to reskill or upskill at varying times of their lives. Its wide range of alternative credentials has attracted a wide range of adult learners looking to build skills that are “hand in glove” with the local workforce.
Such niche programs CMC offers are two-year certificates in avalanche science and a degree in ski and snowboard business. Among the diverse array of hands-on training CMC can provide students, Hauser understands it wouldn’t be possible without CMC’s unique funding structure. The initial capital necessary for CTE programs in oral hygiene or ski area operations requires expensive equipment: a Tucker Sno-Cat can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.