Coloradans aren’t known for voting to tax themselves at higher rates. (In fact, we’ve got the most restrictive tax and spending limits in the country.) Yet that’s exactly what residents of five Western Slope counties—Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle, Lake, and Summit—did in 1965, in order to fund the districts’ first junior college. Colorado Mountain College, which opened two years later with campuses in Glenwood Springs and Leadville, was designed to better prepare young adults who were destined for careers in mountain industries, such as food service and mining technology (a prescient move given Colorado’s current shortage of technical workers). Annual tuition was $200.

Llama Colorado Mountain College
A llama carries solar panels for CMC students to install at a hut in the Elk Mountains in 1985. Photograph courtesy of Doug Stewart / Colorado Mountain College

Fifty years later, CMC’s defining traits have stayed the same. The school remains mind-bogglingly inexpensive, with annual tuition set at $1,950 for students from the same county as the campus they attend. That’s because CMC is one of the few district colleges left in the state, meaning the bulk of its funding comes from local taxpayers instead of Colorado or private foundations. CMC still emphasizes technical degrees that lead to mountain-town jobs—this fall, it’s adding certificates in avalanche technology and action sports—thus keeping students in the area once they graduate. (Eighty-two percent of alumni still live in the region.) In an era of mass migration to cities, the importance of retaining young people in rural communities can’t be underestimated: In 2013, an independent consulting firm estimated CMC’s annual impact on the Western Slope’s economy at $300 million.

Yet, in other ways CMC looks very different than it did in 1967. Its footprint covers 12,000 square miles, with 11 campuses in nine counties. It now offers bachelor’s degrees as well as associate programs. And, most important, the college has ramped up its commitment to education for all: Every high school graduate in its service area is automatically accepted—as long as she enrolls full time—and receives a $1,000 scholarship. (Room and board can tack on almost $9,000 to the costs, so students are encouraged to apply for additional financial aid.) This strategy satisfies CMC’s number one goal—the same one it had half a century ago. “We want to send a message to those who never thought college was for them,” says CMC president and CEO Carrie Besnette Hauser. “It’s amazing how many kids say, ‘I never thought anyone would invest in me.’ ”