I was born in Boulder, Colorado. Usually I tell people this, and follow with, “I know, it’s weird! Nobody was born in Boulder!”
People move to Boulder. They aren’t from there, in the same way almost nobody is from Manhattan. People who can, who want to, pour into Boulder, and into Colorado, from elsewhere. To many, the state represents a tantalizing prospect: dazzling natural beauty, all the outdoor sports and recreation you can handle, for less than you’d spend to live in any of the coastal cities. The Centennial State offers Californians, New Yorkers, Texans and Midwesterners a dream come true: Freedom. The freedom to kick off at 3pm on a Friday to pack for the weekend’s camping trip, and not be written off at work as a slacker or worse. The freedom to pack up the car and head for the hills when the pressures of life get to be too much. The freedom to ditch a suit and tie for Merrells and a North Face vest: the Colorado transplant version of “business casual.” I understand why people want to come here. There are plenty of reasons I have not yet left, though I don’t know if I’ll always be here. But there’s a problem with Colorado’s reliance on transplants. A problem that I don’t see anyone addressing in a real way. The truth is that Colorado has a statistical distinction of being one of the best-educated states in the union, despite the fact that Colorado is one of the nation’s worst places to get an education.
When I read the “highly educated” statistic, I can’t help but feel shortchanged. Though I was born in Boulder, we lived in Minneapolis and Albuquerque before settling back in Colorado (Longmont) when I was 11. I remember the quality of education in the Twin Cities in the mid-eighties: a cutting-edge computer lab, supplemental gifted and talented courses, intensive special-needs programs, exceptional resources and talented educators. Albuquerque felt like a bit of a step down. One or two computers, a lot of money funneled to safety and security measures, but as far as the actual content of the classes, it was pretty much on par. Moving from Minnesota to New Mexico in 4th grade meant going from long division to basic multiplication tables.
Then we came back to Colorado. Computers in the lab were old and clunky. I went from pre-algebra in 6th grade to basic fractions. Book selections were at least a couple of grade levels below what I was accustomed to. Many teachers were noticeably overworked and disengaged, so despite my academic head-start, I quickly became bored and complacent. Nobody seemed to care that I could do better than Cs and Bs, so I stopped caring, too. Other students seemed to be acting out, too, sometimes violently. Yes, part of this noticeable change can certainly be chalked up to the vagaries of adolescence, and the fact that I was a kid coming from a big-city school to the almost tribal small-town culture of a semi-rural area. But a lot of it was a simple, glaring fact: Colorado schools were the worst-funded schools I’d ever attended, and it showed.
A 2014 statistic states that only about one out of every five kids who graduates from a Colorado high school will go on to obtain a college degree. Statewide, about 25% of kids won’t even graduate high school at all. We’re 43rd in the nation for per-pupil spending, with an average per-pupil expenditure about $2700 below the national average. The result is that Colorado’s achievement gap between wealthy and poor students- already among the worst in the nation- is widening. In 2009, 40% of Colorado’s low income students failed to graduate high school, a rate twice that of their middle- and high- income classmates. And with rising tuition rates, and a rank of 49th nationwide in State and Local funding for higher education operating expenses, Colorado puts college out of reach for many of those local, low-income students who do graduate.
In our institutes of higher learning, transplanted college students are the bread and butter of our public colleges. Out of state tuition is about three times what in-state students pay for the privilege of getting a BA in Boulder, where they make up 47% of the CU student body. Again, where is the incentive in providing assistance to the local student, when his or her place could be taken by a Texan or Californian student paying the 300% markup?
Of course, none of this matters if you come to Colorado pre-educated.
Colorado’s economy depends on people who are educated in other states. It requires them, thrives on them, and certain segments of the population benefit immensely from the fact that educated, ambitious people want to live among the Rockies. In the minds of policymakers, administrators, and (perhaps most important in our TABOR-hobbled state) taxpayers, there seems to be little reason to spend money on education locally when talented people continue to flood into our economy at no cost to us.
I don’t actually think that the Colorado Paradox, as it is called, is maliciously engineered by certain shadowy actors, or that is intentional in any conspiracy-theory kind of way. But I do think that it emerges from market forces that make it the most profitable, least resource-intensive way for the state to construct education policy. The problem is that whether the policies in place are intentional or not, they leave Colorado kids in the dust as the state rolls out the welcome mat to out-of-state brainpower.
The results of the Paradox are pretty grim for many Colorado natives. Those who have the resources to move here are usually doing pretty well before they even arrive. Moving across state borders is, itself, an expensive and disruptive choice that usually requires a certain level of privilege. Those who grow up here and can’t easily leave must contend with skyrocketing housing costs, competition from better-educated transplants for jobs, and the financial obstacles keeping them from gaining higher educational opportunities. It’s not impossible to rise above these odds, but it’s getting harder all the time.
Meanwhile, the odds for real education reform in Colorado aren’t great. Our TABOR laws hinder revenue increases, the state’s libertarian streak means many taxpayers refuse to “throw money” at problems in the schools, and retirees and child-free newcomers to the state don’t have any skin in the game. Add to this the fact that the Colorado school system is pretty segregated along class lines, rendering perspective difficult. Rich schools and poor schools are virtually invisible to each other, so the rich don’t have to see how bad it is for the poor and the poor often don’t see what they’re missing. For example. America’s 10th poorest school district, Centennial School District in the San Luis Valley, is isolated and remote, just North of the New Mexico state line. Contrast this to the wealthiest school district in Colorado, suburban Douglas County, 221 miles and a world away.
A one-room schoolhouse in Buena Vista, Colo.
So what’s to be done? I think the first step is to recognize the Colorado Paradox for what it is actually NOT: this isn’t really a paradox at all. In a free market economy, the Colorado Situation is no more paradoxical than the forces of supply and demand. It makes a lot of sense to capitalize on the educational wealth of other states, to buy in talent instead of cultivating it in-house, over the course of a couple of decades per each homegrown college graduate. That’s simple economics. But just because this isn’t paradoxical doesn’t make it less unconscionable. There may come a time when all these educated people stop wanting to live in Colorado. Maybe they’ll get tired of the wildfires, or the traffic, or the ever-rising home prices. Maybe the heat will start to get to them. Maybe (probably) weed will be legalized elsewhere, and this will stem the tide of incoming pot users. Maybe people who came here and set up lives for themselves in their 20s will start to have kids, and will be so appalled at the state of Colorado’s education system that they’ll take their families and their tax dollars back home.
Colorado should know better than to depend on an unpredictable resource for its economic well-being. It should have learned with silver in the 1890s, but didn’t. It should have learned with oil and gas in the 1980s. But it didn’t. Will it learn to invest in its own children before the glut of transplants slows to a trickle? We can only hope.