How One Man’s Dream Benefited 25,000 West Slope Students

David Delaplane, who helped found Colorado Mountain College, poses for a photo in Denver, Colorado.
Jason Gonzales/Chalkbeat

David Delaplane pondered a crucial question in his tiny cabin in Glenwood Springs.

How could the local chamber of commerce he headed improve education in the area? His response was to establish a college – an ambitious goal for a chamber that had recorded no education work.

Delaplane said he contacted the chamber education committee and “they said, ‘Well, yeah, let’s go. “”

Today, Delaplane’s idea lives on as Colorado Mountain College and has shaped the lives of more than 25,000 graduates since the school’s inception in 1965.

Delaplane, 94, never imagined his creation would stretch across the western slope and eventually offer bachelor’s degrees. He considers it one of the great university success stories, growing from two campuses to 11, covering more than 12,000 square miles.

Delaplane recently reflected on enable students from rural mountain areas to access university. Here’s what he had to say.

Why did Delaplane see the need for a college?

While managing the chamber, Delaplane also served as pastor. His journey to becoming a pastor included studies at three colleges. Higher education is an issue close to his heart.

Back then, Glenwood Springs and other mountain towns weren’t the resort towns they are today. There was no ski industry and Interstate 70 was not completed. The gateway to the mountain towns was through Loveland Pass, a long trip to Denver and the Front Range.

Residents had few convenient college options nearby.

Delaplane wanted make it easier for studentsespecially the children of herders and farmers, to get an education.

“I wanted to at least try to start something where young people could reasonably cost go to college closer,” he said.

How did Colorado Mountain College become a school?

To start a school, Delaplane and the chamber had to seek approval from the Colorado Department of Education and the state Board of Education. They received unanimous support. Delaplane still has the letter of August 13, 1965, allowing the chamber to go ahead with his idea.

Delaplane and the committee toured the five surrounding counties asking voters to come forward to establish a school and use the money to fund its operations. Four of the five counties voted for the measure, securing the school’s foundation. Delaplane and local leaders lacked a roadmap for establishing a college. The president of what is now the University of Colorado Mesa offered advice: First, he said, hire a president.

David Delaplane shows the letter sent to him by the Colorado Department of Education informing him that they have approved the establishment of a college in Glenwood Springs.
Jason Gonzales/Chalkbeat

How has the school changed?

Delaplane and the board landed a president from Michigan. But the school’s subsequent years were marked by tragedy. The school’s first and second presidents died in plane crashes.

Early college courses included commercial art, English, computers, welding, and agriculture. In 1971, as ski areas grew and multiplied, the Leadville campus launched a one-year Certificate in Ski Area Operation. A school spokeswoman said it would be the only such program in the country.

What are local leaders saying about the college’s impact?

The school now offers two- and four-year degrees, including jobs that link students to the healthcare and ski sectors. The school also houses students, in an area where it is difficult to find affordable accommodation.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers pointed out Colorado Mountain College as an example for its job accommodation programs to meet the needs of local industries. The school develops many of its programs in partnership with business leaders.

This has always been the relationship the school has with the community, said Angie Anderson, CEO and President of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association.

The local tax lives on and is unusual among higher education institutions that receive the majority of their funds from the state. Instead, Colorado Mountain College receives the majority of its funding from its local tax base.

Anderson thinks using local dollars makes Colorado Mountain College leaders more responsive to the community because the school must continually show it’s a worthwhile investment. And the special tax is used by the school to keep tuition fees low for students who live in the area.

“They work really, really hard to make sure they serve the communities that basically fund them,” Anderson said.

How does Delaplane see the impact on students?

Delaplane often wears a Colorado Mountain College hat, which he says helps strike up conversation with former students. More recently, he discovered that a nurse in his doctor’s office had graduated from college, a training program he had never considered in his cabin.

“It’s just wonderful to know that you meet people who tell me they got their start at Colorado Mountain College,” he said.

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