Approximately 12% of Colorado’s estimated 5.8 million residents live outside the urban I-25/I-70 corridor, in communities across the Eastern Plains, Western Slope, and mountainous regions. Colorado State University has launched the Rural Initiative to invest in these less-populated areas to ensure students there are not left behind in pursuit of affordable access to higher education.

In June 2021, the CSU System Board of Governors voted to invest $8.58 million over three years in expanded support for rural Colorado students and communities. The funds will go toward enhancing existing high-impact programs and additional support including scholarships and other financial aid.

In Fall 2021, 9% of CSU’s resident undergraduates came from high schools designated as rural by the Colorado Department of Education based on size of the school district; distance from the nearest large, urbanized area; and enrollment of 6,500 students or fewer. Rural students at CSU tend to have much higher representation as first-generation students and Pell Grant recipients, and they are more likely to have multiple underserved identities than their urban counterparts.

Interim Provost Janice Nerger, who serves as the chief academic officer for CSU, said it is critical that rural communities are elevated in Colorado’s higher education equation.

“The Rural Initiative fulfills a primary obligation for us as a land-grant institution to serve the entire state and reduce geographic and identity access gaps,” said Nerger. “We want rural students to see an affordable pathway to college, and we want to support economic viability in these regions through expanding the talent pipeline of trained employees with a deep connection to their local communities.”

Collaboration Campuses

Jill Garber, director of CSU’s Collaboration Campuses, provides leadership and strategic direction for place-based educational opportunities across the CSU System. The Sturm Collaboration Campus in Castle Rock, a partnership among Arapahoe Community College, Douglas County School District, and the CSU System, was the first such campus to open in 2019.

“The partnership in Castle Rock is a pioneering approach to the delivery and access of higher education while serving as a model for how CSU can provide a similar experience in our rural communities,” said Garber. “Through the Rural Initiative we can serve a variety of learners and help prepare them to meet the workforce needs of their local communities.”

CSU Fort Collins is just one piece of the puzzle of equitable access. The CSU Spur campus at the National Western Center in Denver is another.

Kids Day at the CSU Spur Terra building PHOTO: CSU Spur

A Spur to higher education

CSU Spur is a first-of-its-kind free campus that can provide a preview to high schoolers of what awaits them at community college or a four-year college. Spur engages pre-K-12 students, families, and visitors around the topics of food, water, and health with real-world experiences.

CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank says the vision for Spur aligns with CSU’s mission and the work of the Collaboration Campuses.

“CSU Spur doesn’t focus on granting degrees, but we hope it will open doors,” Frank said. “Our goal is that every school-age child in Colorado will visit Spur annually, exploring new pathways for learning and careers that could potentially take them to any campus in Colorado, based on what excites their imagination.”

Deeper purpose

CSU Admissions Director Heather Daniels said while it is important to continue to broaden student recruitment for the Fort Collins campus, there is a deeper purpose to the Rural Initiative.

“We would love to increase enrollment of rural students at CSU, but also providing educational encouragement for them to think of college as part of their game plan is the ultimate objective,” said Daniels. “Whether students choose CSU or somewhere else, we want to create a college-going mindset for rural students who might not think of themselves as having the option.”