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Why community colleges are so important

I read an article a few weeks ago about a town in Colorado that’s counting on its community college to save it. While that sounds positively hyperbolic, it’s not. Craig, CO is home to the Craig Station, a coal-burning power plant that will be shut down in 2030. Craig has a population of about 9,000 people, 600 of whom work for Craig Station. That’s nearly 7% of the town.

Craig has turned to Colorado Northwestern Community College to re-imagine Craig, minus Craig Station. That’s no easy task. Workers at the coal plant can make $60,000 with no college education. (That’s a starting salary, by the way.) The stakes are literally life-and-death. If the town cannot reinvent itself in the next nine years, it will die. And that clock ticks faster every day. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., which owns Craig Station, will start the process of decommissioning the plant in 2025.

Also in the mix are the two coal mines that feed Craig Station. Combined, they comprise 10% of Craig’s workforce and account for nearly half of its property tax revenues. Elected officials in Craig are betting on a strategic revival that encompasses tourism, recreation and solar energy – the industry that’s driving the closure of Craig Station.

The plant closure has urgently shifted the strategy at CNCC. The college now wants to offer nursing, paleontology, and technology programs, but that requires money, sponsors or both. Right now, CNCC has neither. And the State of Colorado does not offer much financial assistance to adult learners who want to train or retrain.

Community college is looking for options for its residents

CNCC recently received a $500,000 grant from the Colorado State Attorney General’s Office to fund the startup of a cyber-security program. Tri-State – Craig Station’s owner – will also pay for its soon-to-be-terminated workforce to study at CNCC. The state grant will fund almost three years’ of the cybersecurity program’s expenses, then CNCC is on its own.

Unlike Michigan, the State of Colorado provides the majority of community college funding. That model leaves money for operations, but not new program development. And CNCC’s annual budget is a mere $6.2M.

The people of Craig are counting on their community college to help them hang onto what they’ve built. CNCC doesn’t have the benefit of being located in a rich community, so it can’t afford to hire 10 Vice Presidents. Nor can it afford to build unnecessary academic buildings or hotels, or gamble General Fund dollars on risky investments. (Then again, neither can WCC, but the WCC Board of Trustees doesn’t seem to know that.)

Every dollar counts, but that’s true, whether your budget is $6.2M or $109M. The WCC Board doesn’t seem to know that either.

Photo Credit: Jimmy Thomas via Flickr