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A different kind of higher education

Mitchell Hartman Dec 16, 2014
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What’s a university to do when it’s trying to burnish its reputation for sober academics, but it’s surrounded by stores selling Moonwalk, Lemon Diesel and Trainwreck strains of legal pot?  

This is the situation the University of Colorado Boulder is in. It’s ranked fourth for prevalence of marijuana use in student surveys, according to Princeton Review.

“CU Boulder, an exceptional school academically, has been in the top five or six schools on that ‘Reefer Madness’ list for a long time,” says Princeton Review publisher Rob Franek. 

But since the beginning of 2014, with implementation of voter-approved legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana, stores and dispensaries have proliferated in and around Boulder.   

And that development happened in the same year that the school experienced a 28 percent jump in undergraduate applications. 

“We see no correlation between our rise in applications and the legalization of marijuana,” says university spokesman Ryan Huff. “It’s really a coincidence of timing.”

Kevin MacLennan, Boulder’s director of admissions, explains that coincidence: the same year that recreational marijuana legalization took effect in Colorado, the university adopted the Common Application. The common app, is it’s known, makes it much easier for students to apply to multiple colleges. Schools typically see a double-digit jump in applicants when they begin using it.

Applications are up again this fall by 12 percent as of late November, according to MacLennan. He attributes the rise to increased recruitment. Similarly, Colorado College in Colorado Springs  No. 13 on the Reefer Madness list — has also seen applicant numbers jump by double-digits since 2012. The college partly attributes to joining a new college consortium that has expanded the applicant pool.

It could also be that some of these students want to come to Colorado because of the legal recreational pot. But, says “that’s something that’s fairly hard to track on an admissions application,” MacLennan says.

On an official tour of the 30,000-student campus, there wasn’t much discussion of the issue among prospective students and their parents. But the issue was on their minds. 

“Of course as a parent I would be concerned that an addictive substance is legal,” said Charles Stevens, visiting from Chicago with his son. “But alcohol is legal. I don’t know a whole lot about cannabis, but I’m certainly going to learn more about it.”

His son, Alex, said Boulder is his first choice because of the skiing, not the liberal marijuana laws.

Suzanne Baker, who lives in Denver, was visiting with her granddaughter from Hawaii. Baker is pro-legalization so the issue “doesn’t concern me,” she says. “If my granddaughter is going to get into something, she can get into alcohol or anything else, so I think it’s a personal decision.”

For years, university administrators have been trying to downplay their party-school image, talking up Boulder’s academic reputation, cutting-edge research, especially in science and aerospace, and touting the number (five) of faculty members who are Nobel laureates.

During freshman orientation and in programs run by the school’s health services, students (and their parents) are warned early and often that pot is still banned on campus, and that it’s illegal for anyone under 21. And reminded that heavy use can get in the way of academic success.

Several years ago, the administration cracked down on the local 4/20 “smoke-out,” where thousands gathered on campus to openly get high. 

“That was a huge disruption to our academic pursuits here on campus, so we have effectively shut that down,” says Huff. “I think when you take steps like that, when you take greater education to your students, you’re going to see the use drop.” 

Students are noticing the new PR push. “There has definitely been a concerted effort to rebrand CU not as a party school, but as an academically serious institution,” says Lauren Thurman, a junior who is opinion editor of the student newspaper, the CU Independent

“You’ll see these little banners all over campus where it’s like, ‘Be Ambitious, Be Generous, Be Bolder.’”

Thurman says plenty of students, including her close friends, are serious about their studies and don’t smoke much pot. Still, she says, it’s ubiquitous.

“Definitely on a daily basis you’d get a whiff of it somewhere,” Thurman says. “So in the dorms you wouldn’t smell marijuana so much as you would smell burning popcorn, which was sort of the universal sign that someone was trying to cover up smoking.”

College students will probably be covering up their smoking less – and using pot more, in coming years – as legalization spreads to other states and the social stigma falls away. This is a generation raised thinking of marijuana as safe, even salutary, for human health.

“Most of the highest-achieving, most brilliant students I know are really heavy smokers,” says Anna Squires, a sophomore at Colorado College. “I don’t know that that’s a good thing, but I think they exist on a more philosophical plane, and they’re just thinking really deeply about what they’re learning.”

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