GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Colorado Mountain College might not be home to iconic marble and granite academic halls lining grassy, tree-lined quads. But the hometown community college now does have something in common with the big college campuses.
Starting in the spring of 2013, CMC will begin graduating its first-ever bachelor degree students.
The current 2011-12 academic year is the first time CMC has offered bachelor's degree programs at its numerous locations throughout north-central Colorado.
Strictly a two-year junior college up until now, CMC earned approval in 2010 from Colorado higher education officials and the state Legislature to begin offering limited four-year degrees.
Junior year, or 300-level classes began last fall and continue this spring for students seeking a bachelor of science in business administration or a bachelor of arts in sustainability studies. Senior-year classes will start this summer and fall.
CMC has residential campuses at Spring Valley outside Glenwood Springs, as well as in Leadville and Steamboat Springs. It also has locations stretching from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, and along the Interstate 70 corridor from Rifle to Vail and up to Summit County.
The bachelor-degree courses are available at all of the college locations, depending on student demand.
For students living in these areas, the new baccalaureate programs present an opportunity to stay close to home and still earn a four-year degree.
"I've lived here all my life, so to have this opportunity right here was a big bonus," said Robert Morrison of Carbondale.
Morrison, 27, is pursuing his bachelor's in sustainable studies after having earned an associate of science degree at CMC last spring.
"I've been going to CMC with the idea of trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life," said Morrison, who is also the student body president for CMC's Roaring Fork Campus.
He said he was attracted to the innovation, social responsibility and strong job possibilities in the sustainability field. That can include careers in energy-efficient building design to opportunities in the renewable energy trades.
"I was planning to pursue environmental science at Mesa [Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction], but then this just made more sense," Morrison said. "I prefer to be able to stay here and earn my degree."
Students from across Colorado, and even from around the country, are also discovering CMC to be an affordable option for earning their bachelor's degrees.
"Most of the students who are now pursuing bachelor's degrees started with CMC as associate-degree students," said Brad Tyndall, CMC's senior vice president for academic affairs.
"They heard about this big, new venture and decided they wanted to stay right here at CMC and continue their studies," he said.
The number of students pursuing bachelor's degrees at CMC is rather modest this first year.
Collegewide, in the fall there were 150 students taking 300-level classes, according to college officials. Locally, that included 52 students taking classes in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Spring Valley, and 10 in Rifle.
This spring, the total number of students taking the upper-level classes increased to 182.
Some students who have declared as bachelor program majors are still taking 100- and 200-level prerequisite classes, so they are not included in those numbers yet.
But another 500 freshmen and sophomores have indicated they are interested in continuing beyond a two-year degree to pursue a bachelor's degree at CMC.
"We did a lot of student surveys and focus groups and came up with a list of classes and programs they would like to see," Tyndall said of student involvement leading up the four-year degree offerings.
Of the students currently enrolled in the two programs, about 60 percent are pursuing a business administration degree, while 40 percent are in the sustainability studies program, Tyndall said.
CMC is exploring other four-year degrees, including nursing, a bachelor of arts with an emphasis on education, and an applied science degree that could be used in several different areas of focus.
"We do have separate committees looking at each of these area," Tyndall said. "But we are probably a couple of years out with all the accreditation and other approvals that are required."
The average CMC bachelor-degree student, and CMC students in general, does not always fit the typical college-age demographic. Most are from the local communities served by CMC.
"But I do think we are being discovered by more students from around the state and even outside the state," Tyndall said. "And, one of the best ways to serve local students is to recruit from outside the area to enhance the overall mix of students."
Perhaps not too surprising, most of the bachelor degree students are also in their late 20s, early 30s and older, Tyndall said.
"A lot of students are also very part time, because they are often working or raising families at the same time," he said.
Cheryl Strouse of Silt is pursuing a bachelor's in business administration. She completed the Leadership, Ethics and Social Responsibility class in the fall, and is now enrolled in Environmental Ethics and Advanced Computer Applications classes in Rifle.
After earning an associate degree with a focus on accounting, at age 56 she's now going for her four-year degree.
"This will open up a lot more possibilities for me in business management, marketing and communications," said Strouse, who did not have the opportunity straight out of high school to go to college because of financial reasons.
She has worked in banking, retail and construction and currently works for the not-for-profit Garfield County Housing Authority in Rifle as a bookkeeper.
"Through my employment at the time, I started with one class at CMC and that grew into a desire to expand my education and knowledge," Strouse said.
Because she works, she carries a part-time class load and is gradually working her way toward her bachelor's degree.
"It's very flexible, which is helpful with my schedule," Strouse said. "Because of my schedule, I wasn't able to go someplace else to go to college."
Kim Cassady of New Castle has been a "lifelong learner" at CMC, spanning the past 20 years or so. She's now a mother of three children, including two under age 5, living with her husband in New Castle.
Cassady, who just turned 40, had been working as a certified paralegal, including eight years as a water paralegal in Glenwood Springs. But after she got laid off twice in her career when the economy soured, she decided she needed more career stability.
She is now pursuing a dual major, seeking bachelor's degrees in business administration and sustainability studies through CMC. She said she looked into earning a bachelor's degree online through Front Range schools, but found it to be more expensive.
"This has been my school through every job change I've had, so when this opportunity knocked I felt like I had to take advantage of it," Cassady said.
She now takes a full load of classes in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Rifle. This spring, she is enrolled in Environmental Ethics, Systems Thinking, Integrated Science, and Cultural and Place-based Equity.
"My hope is that it will lead to a better, more secure job," Cassady said. "After getting laid off twice in the last four years, I need something that's a little more bulletproof."
With Garfield County, particularly the Carbondale area, well-positioned to be a leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy technology, students earning the sustainability studies degree through CMC may have an upper hand as new jobs are created.
Morrison said he enjoys the "community college scene," with its individualized learning, small class sizes and opportunities to apply what he's learning in the local community.
"There are a lot of internship possibilities right here in this area," he said. "Ultimately, I would like to be a consultant for a private company, to be able to help them on the road to sustainability. A lot of companies are going to start having sustainability departments to help them become more efficient."
But it's a skill that can transfer anywhere in the world, he said, especially in many developing countries.
"I could definitely go abroad," he said. "I'm leaving all the options open."
CMC instructor Linda Crockett teaches the Ecology and Sustainability classes. She is also the instructional chair for science at CMC's Glenwood Springs Center.
"There is such an interest in the roll of sustainability just about everywhere in our society," Crockett said. "In just about any field there are positions for sustainability officers, in many different shapes and forms."
CMC is now offering one of few degree programs in the country focused on sustainability, she said.
"Our students coming in with their prerequisites have found that they are very well prepared, and are ready to dive right into the program," Crockett said.
Because of the many local opportunities in the sustainability field, she would like to develop some service projects around the new degree program as well.