More students, more applicants and more interest in living in the valley post-graduation
By Katherine Nettles
Western Colorado University (WCU) is making strides in its engineering and outdoor industry programs, which local tourism and economic development experts think could make way for an economic boost for the Gunnison Valley and for the university.
In an update from Gunnison County Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) representatives on June 27, county commissioners had a discussion with TAPP members and WCU staff about WCU’s growth rates that relate to TAPP’s mission, the school’s expanding curriculum within the Paul M. Rady School of Engineering and other work being done to grow and strengthen the outdoor recreation industry as a local economic driver.
Tapp allocated $950,000 of its 2023 budget for supporting Western through direct financial support, program funding and marketing.
“2023 is the biggest year of TAPP support for Western,” according to the written report TAPP provided. “We see success with Western if recruitment and retention in the programs that we support grow at a greater rate than Western as a whole.”
Jenifer Blacklock, program director for the Rady program, noted that the program has seen a 39% increase in applications for fall 2023 from fall 2022.
WCU in general has seen an increase of 9% in applications, compared with around 21% nationally, according to Common Application, a university application platform.
The TAPP report outlined how the WCU programs it supports, namely the Mountain Sports programs and the Outdoor Industry Engineering/Blister Labs program at the Rady School, “have synergy across other aspects of our mission,” with a focus on trails stewardship to public lands access for outdoor recreation.
TAPP reported that its economic development efforts leverage these programs to draw export companies in Gunnison County, and Blacklock said recent polls show about 90% of students in these programs are interested in remaining in the Gunnison Valley after graduation.
TAPP has supported the Mountain Sports program for close to two years and finds that the freeride skiing and mountain biking athletes translate well into marketing campaigns for both the school and tourism within the county. Mountain Sports continued to show higher GPAs and retention than Western as a whole, and the Rady School represented 25% of all Mountain Sports athletes.
Blacklock reported that Western’s collaboration with Blister Labs to provide its second year of paid internships and research positions for this summer was well-sought after, with about 50 applicants for 15 spots this year. The program has grown from nine positions in 2022, and Blacklock said they closed the application process after 50 applicants this spring since there were more than enough high-quality candidates. She said these applicants have included students from CU Boulder, which could spark more transfers to Western in the future.
“Blister Labs is the first engineering program in the country to work on outdoor gear standards,” she said of the collaboration’s appeal. The curriculum is also expanding to include gravel bike and mountain bike design and manufacturing classes, and its adaptive bike design project for Crested Butte Adaptive Sports has now completed a prototype and is nearing final plans.
The program now has a total of 10 faculty and staff members and is increasing first year students this fall by 15% from last year.
County commissioner Liz Smith commented that this sort of expertise, along with an entrepreneurial support system of TAPP and the ICELab business incubator-accelerator program, could bring exciting prospects to the local economy if those students stay in the valley after earning their degree.
“Entrepreneurship is our main focus,” said ICELab director David Assad. He described a new entrepreneurship minor and entrepreneurship class at the Rady school, and how the ICELab’s coworking space continues to grow.
County commissioner Laura Puckett Daniels commented that as exciting as it is to hear that students want to stay, the economic growth they are hoping for requires more housing for students to build lives locally and to create more upward mobility and higher paying jobs.
“All of this amazing economic growth, recruiting companies, students that want to stay, recruiting more students all puts pressure on our housing. Having more faculty, having more interns who stay, that’s more people needing places to live,” she said. “I’m really pleased that we are able to use some of the LMD [Local Marketing District] to support some of these other issues in our community going forward, because it really does support the whole. We can’t have all that economic growth without also addressing the other factors that it brings,” she concluded.