Growing by degrees: Higher education levels seen as economic boost

While the latest results of an ongoing analysis confirm the growing role of Mesa State College in the Western Colorado economy, another statistic could have potential long-term effects on the regional economy as well.

In addition to announcing the direct and indirect effects of the college contribute more than $300 million a year to the economy, Mesa State President Tim Foster said the proportion of adults in Western Colorado with at least a bachelor’s degree has grown to 33 percent.

Business and economic development officials long have bemoaned what were once comparatively lower educational attainment levels in Western Colorado. While the latest number for the region remains slightly lower than the state average of 35.5 percent, it tops the national average of 27.5 percent.

The numbers are cited in the 2010 census data, with 14 counties included in the Western Colorado data.

When Foster took over as college president six years ago, he said an increase in the proportion of residents with college degrees would be a high priority. He attributed the gain that’s occurred in part to efforts at Mesa State, where student enrollment has increased 40 percent to top 8,000 and the college has expanded the number of undergraduate and graduate degree programs it offers.

Diane Schwenke
Diane Schwenke

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said the increase in the number or residents with four-year degrees is encouraging.

Moreover, Schwenke said she’s not surprised the percentage has topped the national average in part because of the influence of the energy industry in Western Colorado.

“We’ve had changes in the skill set,” she said. “Biochemists and others are working in the energy business.”

While the natural gas exploration and development sector employs fewer people in the region than it did during the boom days of 2007, energy companies have expanded their efforts and employment in the region since 2009.

Schwenke said the increase in the number of people with bachelor’s degrees can help attract businesses to Western Colorado. Companies used to ask for buildings and land as an incentive to move here, she said. Now they’re looking more for an educated work force.

Schwenke said she expects the number of residents with college degrees to increase in the near future. “There are more students going to college, especially in a down economy,” she said.

People considering college can be enticed by reports of the advantages degrees offer graduates.

“Whether we believe these surveys that say you’ll earn $1 million more in your lifetime, it’s pretty well documented that it’s going to help a person’s career,” said Rick Taggart, executive director of marketing and recruitment at Mesa State College.

The extra income can be enough to invest in a substantial retirement plan, a common concern for young adults who don’t want to count on Social Security benefits as an option when they retire.

While the United States unemployment rate was 9 percent in January, the rate was much lower for college graduates.

Mesa State is not claiming it’s the sole driver behind the increase in bachelor’s degrees in the region.

In fact, new census data has yet to refute the so-called Colorado paradox: the state ranks near the top of the country in the proportion of adults with college degrees, but near the bottom in the proportion of high school graduates going to college.

That trend could prove to be changing as census numbers are further examined. But no matter how the numbers shake out, officials at Mesa State plan to continue to push for an increase in the number of students who receive diplomas each year.