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Higher ed’s high impact

Jerry Wartgow //June 8, 2011//

Higher ed’s high impact

Jerry Wartgow //June 8, 2011//

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of six articles written by business and community leaders who participated in the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation’s “Colorado Experience” excursion to Colorado Springs in late April.

When it comes to an area’s future growth, it’s natural to look to business and industry as key drivers of development. But as our recent Colorado Experience visit to Colorado Springs made clear, the business of higher education is vital to this area’s fabric and its future.

The role and impact of higher education as a key contributor to the economic, social and cultural vitality of Colorado Springs and the surrounding region emerged as a recurring theme throughout the recent Colorado Experience excursion, organized by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation.

From the opening visit to the United States Air Force Academy through the closing luncheon presentation on the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, it was clear that higher education was not only highly valued as an economic engine for the area, but also as an integral player and key partner in strategic planning for all aspects of the area’s future growth and development.

While the mission of the USAFA, “to educate, train and inspire men and women to become officers of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation,” is generally understood, what is not as widely known is that the Academy offers 32 different majors and includes 14 research centers and two institutes, which compose one of the largest undergraduate research programs in the nation.

Through these programs the academy contributes directly to academic, commercial and Department of Energy and Department of Defense projects. In addition, with 4,400 cadets on campus, the Academy contributes more than $780 million in total economic impact in Colorado Springs and surrounding areas each year. Cadets live, work and play in the area, frequenting local businesses, volunteering for local nonprofits and taking advantage of the area’s natural beauty through recreational opportunities. This interaction between the academy and the community has, and will continue to, shape the identity of Colorado Springs – both culturally and economically.

Those who had an opportunity to attend the academy briefings were uniformly impressed with the quality of both the academic programs and the cadets. Colorado Springs and Colorado as a whole are very fortunate to be home to the USAFA, and opportunities for Denver to develop more collaborative initiatives with the academy should be pursued.

Likewise, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is an economic engine for the area, with a growing student body and an employee base that ranks it as one of the largest employers in southern Colorado. UCCS is one of four campuses of the University of Colorado System (which also includes Boulder, Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus). Its permanent campus was established in 1965 in response to Hewlett-Packard’s need to educate and retain the Pikes Peak regional work force.

Ever since, it has been a key player in economic development, by establishing programs and collaborations in response to market needs of the aerospace industry and the many military bases located in the Colorado Springs area. Today, UCCS’ 9,000 students and 1,700 employees equate to an estimated annual contribution to the Colorado Springs economy of $310 million.

UCCS has also emerged as a regional asset through its leadership in establishment of the Southern Colorado Higher Education Consortium. Consortium members include UCCS, Colorado State University-Pueblo, Adams State College, Western State College, Fort Lewis College, and Pikes Peak, Pueblo, Trinidad, Lamar and Otero community colleges.

The consortium is a framework for cooperation to increase higher education access, persistence and completion for nontraditional, underrepresented and first-generation students to promote long-term economic development. This cooperative approach is an efficient and practical alternative to creating duplicative and competitive programs, and should be regarded as a model for our state and the region.

With these two institutions as Colorado Springs’ higher education backbone, the area is well poised to maintain and grow the important educational base that moves our economy forward. And as we Colorado Experience participants saw firsthand, higher ed’s imprint on the community goes well beyond the classroom.
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