Dr. Jason Glass, superintendent of Eagle County Schools; Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser, president and CEO of Colorado Mountain College; and Chris Romer president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, co-authored this editorial, first published in the Vail Daily.
A healthy and diverse economy pays almost innumerable benefits to a community. A few of these positive outcomes include wealth generation, job growth, economic stability, civic and cultural vitality, the creation of a stable tax base for essential public services, a better quality of life, etc. A healthy economy provides a springboard for families in our community to reach their dreams.
The link between the economy and education is critical and inseparable. While the beginnings of the American education system were premised on creating participant citizens for our fledgling republic, in reality it was the economic need for trained and skilled workers that spurred the creation of the system of public schools and universities we have across our nation and in Colorado.
Today, this link between the economy and education remains as important as ever. A quality education system builds human capital, the key ingredient that enriches and sustains successful communities (not to mention societies) over the long term. A base of commonly shared knowledge, the ability to gain and apply specialized knowledge, and traits like drive, curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, empathy and social intelligence are necessary to keep the gears of our economy turning. The latter two traits are especially important in that they allow for cooperation and collaboration among people with different interests — forming the basis of an economic system.
But it isn’t just education that drives the economy; the relationship is reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. A strong education system fuels and drives a strong economy — and a strong economy supports and demands a strong education system. While we are on the right track in Colorado (the U.S. Chamber recently rated Colorado an “A” for educational effectiveness), we still have a ways to go to build a truly effective and impactful partnership.
That’s why strong and mutually respectful partnerships as well as collaboration among business, early childhood education, pre-K through 12 education and higher education in our community is so important. Each of these segments rely on the expertise and contributions of the others, and the larger economic system suffers if any part of the equation stumbles.
Our community saw this firsthand during the Great Recession of the past few years as what began as an economic meltdown led to severe disruption to our community’s education system. Now that our local economy seems to have turned the corner, all parts of our system are spinning back up to speed, even stronger and more efficient than we were before.
However, we cannot rest on our laurels. By the year 2020, nearly 75 percent of all jobs in Colorado will require some form of post-secondary education. Essentially, a college certificate or degree is fast replacing a high school diploma as a prerequisite for most jobs in our workforce. Currently, only 25 percent of all ninth-graders in our state go on to earn a post-secondary degree. The path for low-income or historically underrepresented populations is even more compromised — the very population making up a majority of our K-12 populations and our employment pipeline. In fact, Colorado has one of the country’s largest achievement gaps between white students and their lower-income counterparts of color.
Colorado has long benefited from an import effect, whereby we attract and hire college degree holders from other states. However, we do a tepid job of “growing our own.” This tide must turn; it is both a social and economic imperative.
Right here in Eagle County, we are well positioned to blur the lines between our K-12 and post-secondary education systems and to forge partnerships with employers to match skills with workforce needs. This results in more of our native Eagle County students who will be prepared more efficiently and effectively to contribute to our economy and local communities.
The Partnership for Education, created in 2001, was a unique collaboration among the Eagle County School Board of Education, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners, the Edwards and Berry Creek metropolitan districts, and Colorado Mountain College. It had a shared vision to provide an outstanding facility for a new 21st century CMC campus and programs. This unique public-private partnership provided the infrastructure for what is now a robust P-20 model. Within a 1-mile stretch, students can progress from pre-kindergarten all the way to earning a bachelor’s degree. Concurrent enrollment of high school students in college-level courses outpaces most other school districts in the state.
As a result of favorable and innovative legislation in recent years, the dual enrollment option has become a valuable tool to help students needing extra time and attention in math and English while they are still in high school. The goal is to mitigate the high percentage of students who enter college unprepared for credit-bearing courses at CMC or other institutions. By doing so, many more students will enter and complete college on track and earn one of those critical credentials or degrees required for the skills-intensive job market that will forevermore be the reality.
The education system and business community in Eagle County face a shared challenge: preparing students to enter adulthood and the workforce. While the perspectives may be different, the collaboration between the school system and the business community is an important consideration moving forward to achieve the economic development goals including wealth generation, job growth and a higher quality of life for Eagle County’s residents.