Joe Higgins

Joe Higgins leads fundraising for the Mesa Scholarship Initiative

Joe Higgins likes to tell a story about his trip to Alaska last year. He was in Juneau and coincidentally ran into a young woman from Fruita, Colorado. They struck up a conversation and he learned that she had just graduated from high school and took a job in Alaska.

As they talked, Joe learned that wasn’t what she really wanted to do, it was just a good way to make some money. What she had wanted to do was attend CMU, but her mother had been stricken by illness and had to quit work. Half the family income was gone and financially CMU was out of the picture for her.

Higgins mentioned that he was on the board of the CMU Foundation. She said she had heard a rumor that anyone who lives in Mesa County could go to CMU tuition free and wanted to know if that was true. Not exactly, he said. However, he is involved with spearheading the fundraising for a program where funding will be available for any Mesa County high school graduate who wants to attend CMU or WCCC.

It’s known as the Mesa Scholarship Initiative (MSI), and it grew from some statistics that crossed the desk of President Tim Foster a few years ago. In a nutshell, the data he saw showed that high school graduates from families with the lowest incomes and the highest incomes had much higher rates of post-secondary education than those in the middle incomes.

How, he wondered, could CMU help those middle-income families? The other question was how to pay for it.

CMU approached the City of Grand Junction, which, three years ago, agreed to fund a substantial scholarship program for Mesa County students to attend CMU or WCCC. Since inception, that program has grown to provide hundreds of students with scholarship assistance. Higgins wanted to build a sustainable pool of funds to compliment the city’s efforts.

Tim Foster calls the city’s support and the Mesa Scholarship Initiative “one of those things that just makes sense.” He is appreciative of the city’s generous support and is optimistic that it will continue even with the budgetary problems COVID-19 has caused.

“Basic municipal services are important,” he said. “But human capital is just as important if not more so.” The City of Grand Junction realizes that.

Higgins and his fellow board members have a goal of a $10 million endowment to supplement the city’s annual commitment. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but one Higgins thinks can be accomplished. To date, the endowment includes more than $2.5 million in funds raised.

Two people who have been generous to the Mesa Scholarship Initiative are Chuck and Patti Shear and their son, Quint. Both endowed scholarships, Chuck and Patti on their own with a $60,000 investment and Quint as president of Shear Inc. for $30,000. Chuck said he and their company have endowed many scholarships throughout the years, but they were mostly aimed at students who wanted careers in the energy industry.

“This sounded like a good program to me because it’s for local kids,” he said. “We like to invest in kids and give them a chance at a great education at CMU.”

The Shear family has helped get the program off the ground but Higgins knows there is much work to be done. For several months beginning last year he hosted small lunches with potential donors. That effort was fruitful, but it was put on hiatus because of the pandemic. He and other Foundation Board members resumed them this fall.

Higgins was the executive director of Mesa County Partners, a program for at-risk youth, for more than 30 years before retiring five years ago. In one respect he thinks the Mesa Scholarship Initiative is an extension of the work he did there. “For many years at Partners,” he said, “I saw how kids could turn their lives around if given an opportunity.”

Scholarship recipients though aren’t the only ones to benefit. “We know that post-secondary education creates more involved and engaged citizens,” said Foundation CEO Liz Meyer. “The entire community benefits from that.”