Tony Frank: On investing in rural Colorado

I grew up on a small farm in Illinois. I spent mornings doing chores and after-school time in 4-H, and my plan was to farm. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else or wanting to live anywhere else. College seemed foreign to me, and quite a stretch.

Obviously, time changes plans. In my case, scholarships lured me to college, and my interest was piqued in veterinary medicine. And it turns out all those skills learned in 4-H – public speaking, running meetings, being a steward of other people’s money, being responsible to others, etc. – had practical applications in the working world that I hadn’t realized. And so instead of returning to the family farm, or a lifetime in large animal practice, I’ve spent my career at Land-Grant universities like Colorado State – the campuses specifically created to help students and families like mine gain access to higher education.

I start with that story because time plays a prominent role in this message. Time changes many things, including often our definitions. When Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, the people this new class of universities were to serve were depicted by the phrase “sons of the working class,” obviously a product of its time. Today, who we exist to serve is obviously far more inclusive – and though we may all differ from one another in family background, race, gender orientation, income level, political viewpoints, etc., we can still generally find common ground in what we hope for our children and what we need from their generation.

At all of our CSU System campuses, our goal is to ensure that any student – every student – in Colorado with the desire for a college education has that chance. This can be at a large research university. It can be at a smaller regional comprehensive university with diversity that exceeds that of the population of our state. It can be at a fully online university, even if you’re not traditional college age and are working and raising your own family. Our campuses all share the same foundational goal: open doors to human improvement.

And while this goal hasn’t wavered, time has clearly broadened who we serve and how we do it. As a school founded and forever committed to be Colorado’s agricultural campus, CSU now faces the reality that the urbanization of our nation has resulted in the majority of students coming from the Front Range and areas near a metropolitan center. The diversity of our campuses continues to grow, also a reflection of changes in the society we exist to serve. And over time we, like all of our sister universities, have developed and continue to develop programs to reach out to underserved students and indeed into underserved communities to continue the evolution of the concept that America’s public universities exist to unlock human potential – for the good of the individual and all of us sharing space in a pluralistic society. And just as each research finding reveals new questions, each bit of recruitment and enrollment progress has identified needs for improvement in retention and graduation and all manner of student success metrics. We now direct special resources to first-generation students to help position them to earn a degree despite barriers not faced by students who come from families with generations of college graduates. There’s much to be proud of here – and much work remaining to be done.

And just as time brings change, it also tends to bring us back around with a certain constancy to our roots. In Lincoln’s day, the children coming out of rural America were nearly 100% new to the concept of a college education, and we recognized the need to support them differently – in that case with a new system of universities. Over time, we expanded that approach of special support to help many others new to the college experience – veterans on the GI Bill and first-generation students being prime examples. But while we did so, challenges also remained in rural America, and these have grown in recent years. Today, a lot of kids in smaller, rural areas around our state – students much like me at that age – are again struggling to see themselves at their own state university, which is now in many cases larger than the towns in which they were raised.

And those towns’ connection to Colorado’s land-grant university – which runs the county 4-H programs, manages the State Forest Service, operates research stations in all corners of the state to support the needs of the agricultural community, and ensures there are Extension staff serving every Colorado county – has also changed. The concept of having an Extension agent who serves as a multidisciplinary expert in a community is our commitment and starting point – and those positions traditionally tended to be farm-and-ranch oriented. But the specialization and sophistication of large-scale agriculture that feeds our world demands expertise beyond the scope of this traditional system. And the needs of rural communities have also expanded beyond agricultural production. So, Extension has shifted to a model of partnership with county commissioners, where local needs – defined by the local community – can be paired with the appropriate parts of a large, modern research university. In this way, the evolution of CSU Extension has allowed it to become an important voice for the needs of communities, whether urban or rural.

Over the past year and a half, rural communities have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, as well as by drought, fires, the pullout of extraction industries from some communities, and other challenges such as lack of access to reliable internet service. We’ve heard that from across rural Colorado. These communities are resilient and strong – and together, we can optimize that strength and the potential of these communities for future generations. And so, even as we continue to improve our connections to underserved urban communities, time has also brought us back around to understanding opportunities for service within the communities we were originally born to serve a century and a half ago.

The Board of Governors of the CSU System this summer made an unprecedented decision to invest $8.58 million over the next three years in expanded support for rural Colorado students and communities. With this new investment, we will be providing additional scholarship and financial support for 4-H students and alumni from rural areas, with a goal of increasing rural student enrollment by 40% and closing graduation gaps. We’ll also be working on creating a new Extension model focused on the needs of older adults, sort of a 4-H for senior Coloradans. We’ll be focused on supporting a concrete set of efforts to improve health, promote vibrant communities and a thriving rural economy for Colorado.

Higher education’s highest responsibility is to educate our students, but land-grant universities also have – as part of their statutory mission – a commitment to serving the whole state with research, engagement, and access to opportunities for learning. CSU has always treated that mission as a high calling, and this action by our Board enables us to move needed programs and opportunities ahead much more rapidly at a time when the need is particularly great. We are grateful for the leadership of the Board of Governors and the partnership of the communities who are guiding this work.

To learn more about what’s planned and why, visit:


This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s August newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.

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