DENVER - Finding ways to expand access to higher education opportunities, especially in rural areas, has been a labor of love for Colorado state Sen. Gail Schwartz.
Before the Snowmass Village Democrat was elected to the state Senate, she spent six years as an elected member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents. She served on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for four years prior to that.
It's one of the reasons Schwartz was eager to sign on as a primary sponsor of Colorado Mountain College's bill currently in the state Legislature that would grant the junior college the right to offer a limited number of four-year degree programs.
"This is very important to me," she said following the Senate Education Committee's 7-1 vote Wednesday to send the bill, known as SB 101, to the full Senate for consideration. "I have worked locally to create more pre-collegiate programs, and I hope to help CMC deliver more opportunities for people in its service district.
"I also want to acknowledge the president [CMC President Dr. Stan Jensen] and the CMC board for their commitment to this issue and wanting to create a strong presence for opportunities in higher education," Schwartz said.
If passed, the bill would allow CMC to offer some four-year bachelor's degrees, in addition to its two-year associate degree and business training programs. The special junior college district has seven campuses and 11 physical locations throughout north-central Colorado, including Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Rifle and Aspen.
The proposal has met with some resistance by officials from the Colorado Department of Higher Education and other higher education institutions, who feel CMC should wait out a new statewide strategic plan on higher education that is currently in process.
But Schwartz said CMC's plan goes hand in hand with Gov. Bill Ritter's goals to increase the number of students enrolled in college programs.
"This is a very central issue for rural areas, where you have to drive more than two hours to find any institutions offering a four-year degree program," she said, noting that Colorado is next to last in funding for higher education among the 50 states.
"The Front Range has a lot of universities and community colleges, and we, too, need to have some more opportunities," Schwartz said. "We need to keep moving on this, because it only contributes to the overall success of the state."
Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, is chair of Senate Education Committee, and also one of the CMC bill's co-sponsors.
"Most of us believe that CMC provides a real service for the communities it serves," Bacon said, adding he believes the full Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, will support the measure.
If the bill passes the Senate, a similar bill would go through the same steps in the state House of Representatives. The bill's primary House sponsor is Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Summit County.