Sarah Mausolf
smausolf@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado

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July 23, 2010
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Eagle County college rides high through the downturn

EDWARDS, Colorado - John Avery had been thinking about changing careers for a while but he turned his full attention to it after losing his job.

When he got laid off from a property management position about a year ago, that nudged him to make a move toward the health care industry.

Although Avery, 26, already has a bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, he turned to Colorado Mountain College in Edwards to get the specialized training he needs to become a paramedic.

"CMC's got a cheaper program than a majority of schools in the state," the Breckenridge resident said. "That was a big reason. It's also close."

At a time when many businesses are floundering, Colorado Mountain College has been thriving in spite of - and in some ways because of - the recession. Enrollment at the Edwards campus has steadily increased since the recession hit, rising by nearly 10 percent between 2008-09 and 2009-10.

That trend doesn't surprise David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, a group that works to expand post-secondary education in the western U.S.

"When there is a recession, almost always we find the demand for higher education goes up, particularly at community colleges," he said.

As the unemployed look to upgrade their skills, community colleges offer a cost-effective option, Longanecker said.

Colorado Mountain College's enrollment had been booming even before the recession. Enrollment at the Edwards campus has jumped from 3,543 students in 2004-05, the year the campus opened, to 4,849 in 2009-10. That's a 37 percent jump.

And while the recession has derailed many construction projects across the country, the college has been moving ahead with an $8 million expansion at the Edwards campus. Plans to more than double the size of the building are on track to wrap up by fall 2011. College officials say they had been saving money for the project for years.

As with the recession, the state budget crisis has done little to stop Colorado Mountain College's upward trajectory. While the college has budgeted for a 53 percent drop in state funding for next year, the college does not rely as heavily on state funding as other state colleges. The college expects to receive $3.1 million in state funding for 2010-11.

"I think one of the reasons why they're doing well compared, in many respects, to other institutions is the nature of their funding stream," Longanecker said.

The school receives the bulk of its funding from property taxes, which have stayed somewhat steady through the recession, he said.

"Being in the Summit and Eagle County area doesn't really hurt a whole lot because you have some fairly valuable properties there," he said.

Even so, the college has put aside reserves to cushion the blow of the recession, college spokeswoman Debbie Crawford said. The college has stayed strong during the downturn by keeping costs low while finding new sources of funding in the form of grants and a slight tuition boost for 2010-11, Crawford said.

With unemployment in Eagle County reaching a five-year high this past May, many people are trying to reinvent themselves to get back into the job market.

Some of them are gravitating to Colorado Mountain College, Edwards campus CEO Peggy Curry said.

"We offer an affordable alternative to quickly retool and prepare for a new career," she said.

Mary Cunningham, an employment specialist with the Colorado Workforce Center in Edwards, said she has seen a 25 percent increase this past year in the number of local people enrolled in federal programs that offered full or partial scholarships to the college.

Government aid aside, the affordable tuition at the college is a draw, Curry said. The college charges $49 per credit hour for someone who lives within the local college boundaries, which is about a third of the cost at Colorado State University or the University of Colorado at Boulder, she said.

It helps that the Edwards campus offers a wide variety of classes geared toward the health care industry, one of the few job markets that has been relatively recession-proof. The Edwards campus plans to expand its health care programs in the future, Curry said.

"Department of labor statistics say that's where there will be good employment and good-paying jobs," she said.

Colorado Mountain College also could find a new area of growth in four-year degrees. The college recently got the green light from state lawmakers to launch bachelor's degree programs. The college hopes to offer a handful of bachelor's degree programs in fall 2011, although officials have not yet worked out the details.

"We're going to see much larger numbers because a lot of our students who have finished their associate's degree and are still in the community have said they'd love to see Colorado Mountain College offer bachelor's degrees," Curry said.

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Jul 25, 2010 10:41PM Published Jul 23, 2010 07:35PM Copyright 2010 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.