When Dr. Stan Jensen took over as president of Colorado Mountain College in 2008, he inherited 12,000 square miles of high-altitude residents with no opportunity to earn four-year college degrees. At least, not without migrating to the big city. CMC, a two-year college that houses campuses in places such as Breckenridge, Rifle, Aspen, and Buena Vista, was in some cases serving as a rural stepping stone to more distant four-year universities.

But for many mountain-town locals, commuting or moving to Denver or Grand Junction to finish school is daunting, even impossible, because of logistics, affordability—or lifestyle. Jensen found himself fielding the same question time and again: Why doesn’t CMC—with an enrollment of 25,000 and a full-time contingency of more than 3,200 students—offer four-year degrees? So a little more than a year ago, he began CMC’s push to provide accredited four-year programs. He expected the legislation to take several passes through the process, but Senate Bill 101, carried by CMC alum and state Senator Dan Gibbs of Summit County, passed with ease this spring. Governor Ritter signed the bill in late May. “When you look at a geographical area the size of Maryland,” Gibbs says of the nine counties CMC serves, “and there’s not one institution where you can get a four-year degree, that’s just not right.”

CMC, which has traditionally specialized in two-year resort management and outdoor professional degrees, hopes to begin offering accredited baccalaureate-level courses in the fall of 2011. Initially, program options will include business and environmental science, with an emphasis on sustainability. If current tuition rates remain the same, students in CMC’s district will eventually be able to earn a four-year degree in one of five subjects for as little as $5,880 (or $30,720 including four years of housing and meals). Plus, an atypical tuition scale emphasizes accessibility for true mountain locals: Out-of-district Colorado students, meaning those from, say, Denver, will pay about $4,000 more for the degree—though skiing 100 days a year just might be worth it. “I don’t think we’ll be stealing students from other schools,” Jensen says. “We’re looking at this as a way to increase the number of college graduates in the state of Colorado.”