For 2,000 students from across the Western Slope, an opportunity for a college education began with a trip to Aspen this weekend.
Students from some 60 high schools in the diverse rural and mountain communities of western Colorado descended on Aspen High’s gymnasium Sunday, where 80 college representatives from around the country and overseas met for the Colorado Western Slope College Fair.
Colorado Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, in a morning address to college representatives, stressed the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the students they would meet.
“From Aspen to Rifle to Ignacio, you will not see this kind of diversity anywhere you go — from kids who live in Aspen in million-dollar homes to kids who live in Ignacio on Indian land who go to very small schools,” Garcia said.
Garcia, a former truck driver and the first member of his family to attend college, who then went on to become president of Colorado State University-Pueblo and to win state office, encouraged the college reps to take that diversity into account Sunday.
“I want you to talk about the value of education to them, not just the value of them to your institution,” Garcia said.
He noted that Colorado has the second-highest percentage of college-educated adults in the United States — after Massachusetts — but that in some Western Slope counties, as few as 5 percent of adults have college degrees.
“It’s hard for you to imagine the lives that many of these kids have had up to this point,” he said, “and it’s hard for them to imagine the kind of lives they can have if they go to your institution.”
The breakfast also included remarks from state Sen. Gail Schwartz, state Rep. Millie Hamner and Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland.
While nearly all of Aspen High School’s 560 students will go to college, the opportunity is far less common for most Western Colorado students. And, until local education advocates organized eight years ago to put the college fair together, access to college reps was scarce for most Western Slope kids.
“This is a rural community that’s been sometimes forgotten,” said college fair co-founder and Aspen High counselor Kathy Klug.
Until the local fair’s founding, the only large event of its type in the state was held at Cherry Creek High School in Denver, with nothing in mountain and rural parts of the state.
Aspen has since become the improbable gathering place for Western Slope high schoolers interested in a college education. The number of attending students has risen from about 500 in 2004 to as many as 2,000 this weekend.
“We’re lucky to have a community in Aspen that embraces an idea like that,” said Aspen School District board member Sandra Peirce.
The culturally and socioeconomically diverse students came from ski towns, ranching communities, American Indian reservations, and Grand Junction.
The fair itself registered as a nonprofit earlier this year: The Colorado Western Slope College Fair Committee. Over the years it’s grown largely on the backs of volunteers and sponsorships from the Wheeler Family Foundation, Aspen Education Foundation, and Alpine Bank, who pay to get students here and attract colleges.
Klug noted Sunday that they pull it off without any taxpayer dollars.
Thirty-five local volunteers work on the fair year-round, with hundreds more volunteer parents and students working on the fair itself. The fair committee pays for a part-time administrator for six weeks out of the year, its only paid employee.
Much of the fair’s $45,000 budget goes into getting kids here from all across the Western Slope. The committee covers travel costs and food for any high schools in the state looking to bring students to Aspen.
This year, they sponsored 30 busloads of students to come meet with admissions folks.
Those driving from farthest away, like the Four Corners communities of Ignacio and Bayfield, camped out in the Aspen Middle School gym on Saturday night. Those students left home Saturday morning, arrived in Aspen after 6 p.m. and slept on the floor — all for a few minutes of facetime with college reps — then loaded up Sunday afternoon and were expected to get home after midnight.
While many college fairs around the country are for-profit affairs, where schools pay to have tables and students pay to get in, organizers have kept the local event free — in the hopes of attracting more schools and more kids.
Aspen High Principal Kimberly Martin said the fair is both an opportunity for Western Slope students and a point of pride for the Aspen education community.
“I think it’s not only a service to the Western Slope but it is a jewel in our crown as well,” she said.