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Western one of fastest growing small universities in the state

Largest incoming class in a decade; expanding curriculum beyond liberal arts

By Katherine Nettles

Western Colorado University president Greg Salsbury credits old fashioned hard work as a reason the Gunnison-based school is seeing a growth spurt.

Western’s fall 2018 incoming freshman class of 511 students is the largest class there in a decade, according to the school’s fiscal year 2017 annual report. Student headcount is up 17.4 percent overall in the past five years, even including the stagnant 2017/2018 school year during which the numbers did not grow. Western has experienced the highest percentage increase in the state of full-time enrollment outside of the CU system.

The university’s changing profile includes an increasingly diverse student body, an increase in admissions standards, development of computer science and engineering curriculum, expanded graduate programs, leveraging $1 million in private scholarship support and plans to continue enrollment growth. The school gained university status in 2012.

The school marks this five-year growth as particularly notable, given the “increasing challenges faced by small, rural public institutions,” where steady drops in enrollment in recent years have led to lost tuition income and operational budget cuts, according to the annual report.

Another aspect of Western’s student body that is changing is its diversity. In 2013, Western reported it had 258 incoming students from under-represented populations, which made up 10.7 percent of the total student body. In 2017, those numbers had grown to 536, or 19 percent of the student body. “Our ability to attract, retain, and graduate minority students will be important as these populations continue to be a larger proportion of the college-going population,” the enrollment assessment report states.

Western’s incoming classes have had slightly bumped up ACT composite scores, which the school credits to its efforts to implement admissions standard changes from “moderately selective” to “selective,” according to the report.

Its traditionally liberal arts core has remained, but expansion into other fields is happening in several directions. First, the Center for Environment and Sustainability (ENVS), which has quadrupled its faculty and doubled the student base in the past four years, was rebranded in 2017 to the School of Environment and Sustainability. Then in the fall of 2018, Western announced a new program, the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering, established in partnership with University of Colorado’s Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science. The program will come with a new 75,000-square-foot LEED-certified facility. The graduate school also expanded to launch an Outdoor MBA this past fall and will begin a new master’s in ecology program in the fall of 2019.

Last, in accordance with the Gunnison Vibrancy Initiative, plans are under way to develop a newly designed corridor between Western’s campus and downtown Gunnison along Ohio Avenue, with construction set to begin in 2019. The project includes a bike lane, a sidewalk, landscaping and street lighting to foster a vibrant downtown area. 

Relative to its in-state comps, Western is successfully retaining and graduating students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the school’s current retention rate is at 64 percent, which is lower than the U.S. average of 75, according to U.S. News rankings but higher than other regional universities. Western’s 41 percent graduation rate, while also lower than nationally ranked schools, is higher than in-state counterparts such as Adams State, Fort Lewis, and Colorado Mesa University. Its 20 percent transfer rate is also lower than its local colleagues.

“Over the last five years, Western has had the second-largest student FTE growth rate in the state, at 16.2 percent,” said Salsbury. “Our new partner, CU, was highest at 18.1 percent. We also managed to improve our diversity from 10.7 percent of total to 19 percent of total. And we did this while keeping retention and graduation rates above peer average.

“I attribute this to a combination of increased and excellent marketing and recruiting—which old-school guys like me refer to as ‘shoe-leather marketing’—and a focus on improving the student experience on campus. While we are pleased with this progress, we know that we can’t get complacent. Both the demographics and the competition of higher education are making it tougher to grow or even maintain enrollment,” said Salsbury.

Western’s enrollment grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, peaking with 3,200 students enrolled, followed by a decline in the decades afterward. Since its lowest numbers, 2,072 in 2009, it has seen a slow and steady increase to its current enrollment of 2,814. The school has a strategic plan through 2023 that aims for modest growth of up to 200 additional full-time student enrollments in three years.

A focus on better student retention seems to be common to its strategic plan and its involvement with the downtown corridor developments.

“An active and desirable downtown might better attract and serve Western students,” as stated in The Westerner Magazine, is recognized in the relationship between Gunnison’s downtown experience and Western’s draw for future prospects.

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