Episode 33: Colleges in the Rocky Mountain Region—Part I

In today’s episode, we will move our virtual tour of U.S. colleges westward to continue to highlight colleges that you and your teenager might not know much about. So far, we have travelled to the five states in the Great Lakes region and to the 12 states in the Southeast region. Now, we are headed out to the Rocky Mountains.

Colleges in the Rocky Mountain Region Part I on NYCollegeChat podcast. Show notes with links available at http://usacollegechat.org/33

As we have said previously, we are looking at four-year colleges only, reasoning that students headed to a public two-year college are highly likely to go to one in their home state and are not, therefore, looking to leave their own geographic region—at least not right away. We also want to repeat that no college has asked us or paid us anything to choose it.

Let us remind you that some of the colleges we have chosen will require that your child have very good high school grades and college admission test scores to get in. On the other hand, others will be a bit easier, especially if a college is looking for out-of-state students to enhance its student body’s geographic diversity. But, because each student’s profile of grades and test scores and activities is his or her own unique package, it will be up to you to look at your child’s high school record to see which colleges might be most appropriate.

Two general notes: First, when we talk about the colleges and universities in this episode, we are talking about the main campus—that is, the one that most people associate with that institution—in those cases where an institution has more than one campus, which is most of them. Second, because enrollment figures are not necessarily comparable as reported by various colleges, you should use the figures we provide here just as an approximation of the actual campus enrollment, but one that is good enough to help you understand whether the student body is the right size for your child—roughly, small, medium, or large.

1. The Rocky Mountain Region

As we have said previously, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce) has divided the U.S. into eight regions, with each region’s covering four to 12 states. In this episode, we are considering the five states of the Rocky Mountain region: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

If you are one of our listeners from the Northeast or the Southeast, for example, I am going to guess that you have not given a second thought to almost any college in the Rocky Mountain region for your child. I think there is at least one jewel that you should not miss. Let’s see what you think.

2. Flagship Public State Universities

As we have been doing on our virtual tour, let’s start with the flagship public state universities in these five states. Each state has one, though some are better known nationally than others. They are all good schools. While these universities have smaller branch campuses in other locations in their states, it is the main location—that is, the flagship of each state’s public system—that we will talk about here because that is the campus that is most respected and most widely recognized, both in the state and outside the state.

These flagship campuses do, in fact, attract students from across the U.S. and from as many as 110 foreign countries. Nonetheless, they all enroll a majority—from about 65 to 85 percent—of students from their home states. Many additional students come from nearby states. Therefore, a New York student with decent, though not spectacular, high school grades and college admission test scores might have a good chance of being accepted. As we have said before, colleges like to have geographic diversity in the student body.

Let us repeat what we have said in other episodes about flagship campuses for any new listeners: They are the place to be, if you graduated from high school in that state. Why? Because they are relatively inexpensive, academically respectable, well regarded across the state and across the country, super-competitive in sports arenas, chocked full of student clubs and activities, within driving distance of home, and a social hub for high school classmates. Consequently, these flagship campuses draw a large portion of the best high school students in the state, which understandably drives up the average high school GPA of entering freshmen.

So, what are these flagship campuses in the Rocky Mountain region? They are the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Utah in Salt Lake City, University of Wyoming in Laramie, University of Idaho in Moscow, and University of Montana in Missoula. These universities are located in different kinds of settings—from picturesque small college towns to substantial cities—but they have some things in common.

The first of those things is the beauty of the scenery that surrounds the campus and/or city. It is called the Rocky Mountain region for a reason; for those of you who have not ventured into these states, I want to say that it is hard to describe in words the massive physical presence of those Rocky Mountains—or, the open terrain, the rivers and lakes, and the broad expanse of sky that characterize this part of our country. I have heard impartial observers say repeatedly that the University of Colorado Boulder is the prettiest campus in the U.S. You can get an idea of its beauty from the website (check out the Scenic Videos section and take in those lovely red-roofed tan buildings), though you will probably miss a certain feeling of grandeur as you look at just a website version of the Rocky Mountains right next to the campus. For students who love the outdoors, these universities are going to be hard to beat.

Another thing they have in common is that they have a lot of students, though they are smaller than the big flagship campuses of the Great Lakes states. The University of Colorado Boulder and University of Utah have about 31,000 to 32,000 total students each, with right around 24,000 to 26,000 undergraduates. The University of Montana and the University of Wyoming have about 14,000 to 15,000 total students each, with about 10,000 undergraduates—just about half the size of CU-Boulder and Utah. And the University of Idaho is the smallest, with just about 10,500 total students (interestingly, about one-third of the University of Idaho’s entering freshmen are first-generation college goers). Generally, these undergraduate student bodies are going to feel large to incoming freshmen—which is either good or bad for your own child, depending on your child.

These flagship universities have from 7 to 10 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges, though Utah has about twice that many at 16—from liberal arts and sciences to all kinds of career-related fields. In addition to engineering and business and education, there is CU-Boulder’s College of Music, Idaho’s College of Art and Architecture, Montana’s School of Journalism, Wyoming’s College of Health Sciences, and Utah’s College of Social Work, for example.

Here is one theme we noticed in this region: Idaho has a College of Natural Resources, Montana has a College of Forestry and Conservation, Utah has a College of Mines and Earth Sciences, and Wyoming has both a School of Environment and Natural Resources and a School of Energy Resources (with an interesting B.S. degree in Energy Resource Management and Development). These particular schools and colleges seem to fit well with the physical settings of their universities.

Our five flagship universities offer from about 75 to 130 undergraduate majors across their numerous undergraduate colleges and schools. The chances are excellent that a student can find what he or she is looking for. Interestingly, CU-Boulder advertises 32 concurrent bachelor’s/master’s degree programs, which would allow a student who wanted to go on for a master’s degree to earn both degrees in five years (without having to apply to college again for that graduate work, which is a real plus).

Like other large universities we have discussed, each one has many student clubs and organizations (sometimes as many as 200) and typically 15 or 16 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams (plus club sports and intramurals). And here is a fact that does not seem too surprising for a university located at the base of the Rocky Mountains: In 2015, CU-Boulder’s Buffaloes won the University’s 20th NCAA national skiing championship (the eighth championship since the sport went coed).

Each campus has its own history, which typically starts with its founding by pioneering leaders—after all, we are talking about the westward expansion of the 19th century here. UC-Boulder was founded in 1876, the same year Colorado became a state. Interestingly enough, the University of Wyoming was founded by its territorial legislature in 1886—four years before Wyoming became a state; furthermore, the University had both female students and female faculty members from the very beginning. And the University of Utah was founded in 1850—way before Utah became a state in 1896. What does that say about the value that these individuals put on higher education?

It goes without saying that westward expansion wreaked havoc on the lives of Native Americans, who had occupied their lands for centuries. The University of Utah has a close relationship with the Ute Tribe, whose historic homeland the campus sits on. Here is the University’s description of “Ute Proud” on a special section of its website:

The University of Utah uses the name “Utes” for its sports teams, as it has done with full support of the Ute Indian Tribe since 1972. The University, as the flagship of higher education in Utah, takes pride in carrying the name with understanding and respect toward our state’s namesake people. This website was created to encourage the entire U community—students, faculty, staff, fans, alumni, supporters—to learn more about the Ute culture, heritage and the history of our region. Ute history is Utah history so that we can all be “Ute Proud.” (quoted from the website)

As we have said in earlier episodes, the state public flagship universities are typically better academically and more widely recognized than many private colleges in the U.S., and there is no prestige—in case you think there is—in attending a more expensive private college that is not as good as a lower-cost great public university. And my personal thought is that CU-Boulder is a jewel that many families in our part of the country—the Northeast—never even consider. Trust me, you should.

3. Other Public State Universities

In four of these five Rocky Mountain states, there are also other public universities—some are branches of the flagship campus, but others are universities in their own right. Wyoming does not have any four-year public higher education institution other than the University of Wyoming, which we just talked about.

A second system of public higher education is available in each of the four states. Let’s look at Montana State University in Bozeman, Utah State University in Logan, and Idaho State University in Pocatello, all of which have their own smaller branch campuses in their own states. These three are about the same size—with total enrollments of roughly 13,500 to 15,000, made up of mostly undergraduate students. Montana State at about 15,500 is actually a bit larger than the flagship University of Montana; in fact, Montana State is also referred to as a “flagship” campus of the Montana State University system on its website and was founded the same year as the U of M, 1893. Montana State, Utah State, and Idaho State have from seven to nine undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools and colleges, with a wide array of bachelor’s degrees majors available. Idaho State offers 75 percent of its state’s health profession degree programs. They all have plenty of varsity sports (13 to 16 teams) and student organizations. All boast about their beautiful settings and nearby recreation areas (like most of the colleges in this region of the country)—their mountains and lakes and rivers and national parks and so on. And I believe all of the boasting is entirely justified.

In addition to the University of Idaho and Idaho State University, Idaho has a third public university that is still larger. That is Boise State University, located in the state capital, with a total enrollment of about 22,000 students, about 80 percent of whom are Idaho residents. Boise State has nine undergraduate and graduate colleges, including an intriguing College of Innovation and Design: “Leveraging the speed, collaboration, and risk-taking of a start-up, the college inspires and supports faculty, students and community members from diverse disciplines to create new pathways of learning that anticipate the demands and opportunities of our ever-changing world and workplace.” (quoted from the website) And its out-of-state tuition is comparatively low at just under $20,000.

Colorado has a relatively large second system of higher education: Colorado State University in Fort Collins, with a substantial enrollment of about 22,500 undergraduates and another 4,500 graduate and professional students. Its students are drawn nationally, but about 75 percent are from Colorado. Colorado State was founded in 1870 as the Colorado Agricultural College—six years before CU-Boulder and before Colorado became a state, though it taught its first classes in 1879. It has eight undergraduate, graduate, and professional colleges, and its average freshman boasts a 3.61 high school GPA. With 620 student organizations, 21 fraternities, 16 sororities, and 16 varsity sports, student life at Colorado State has to be pretty good.

An intriguing public choice also in Colorado is the Colorado School of Mines, an engineering college. Located in Golden, Mines, as it is known, enrolls about 5,500 total students, about 4,500 of whom are undergraduates. It has the largest collegiate chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. It is a highly selective college, whose applicants post a 3.8 unweighted high school GPA. It, too, was opened prior to Colorado statehood. In addition to its applied science and mathematics majors, its geoscience and resource engineering majors, and a variety of other engineering majors, Mines requires a core curriculum, which includes humanities and social sciences courses. Plus, it offers 180 student organizations and 18 varsity athletic teams. Mines is a college with a specialized academic focus—the kind we introduced our listeners to back in Episode 5—and, if that engineering focus is what your child wants, then Mines would be a fascinating choice worth considering.

Another interesting and equally demanding choice in Colorado is the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. We talked about the pros and cons of the five U.S. military service academies in a much earlier episode. To recap, they are great academic institutions (especially in engineering programs), great for cultivating students’ leadership and teamwork skills, great for nurturing self-discipline and ethical behavior in students, and great for giving students a head start in a military career as an officer. On the other hand, students have to make a serious commitment to their college work and, much harder, to a multi-year military service appointment after graduation. And, depending whether our country is at war when students graduate, that is another concern. In addition to free tuition, each of the Academy’s 4,000 cadets receives a stipend of about $900 a month to cover the cost of uniforms, books, and supplies, with a bit left over for personal spending. While that is an attractive deal, remember that every applicant must not only meet rigorous academic standards, but also must secure a nomination from a member of Congress or the Vice President or another couple of authorities. About half of Academy graduates enter flight training after graduation, and the Academy has produced 39 astronauts.

As we have said before, all of these public universities (and there are a few more in these states than those we mentioned here) would cost an out-of-state student more than a public university in his or her own state, but less than many private colleges. So, consider looking at public universities beyond just the flagship universities, for the special programs or the appealing locations or the sense of history and tradition that they offer.

4. Student Exchanges for Tuition Reductions

Through the Western Undergraduate Exchange, college students who are residents of the 15 states that are members of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), which includes our five Rocky Mountain states, may apply for an out-of-state tuition rate of 150 percent of resident tuition at participating colleges in the other member states (though many colleges do limit the number of these tuition deals each year). Virtually all the universities we have talked about in this episode are participating in the Western Undergraduate Exchange. So, if you reside in one of the 15 Western states, the Western Undergraduate Exchange is clearly something to look into. You have to apply for these slots, so get with it.

Though we alluded to a couple of similar deals in our Great Lakes episodes, let us detail now the Midwest Student Exchange Program, a program in which nine of the 12 states in the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC) participate. Through this program, public institutions charge nearby out-of-state students 150 percent of in-state tuition (just as in the Western Undergraduate Exchange). Furthermore, private institutions give participating state students a 10 percent reduction in their tuition. Again, there are limits to how many deals each institution will give, but students in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wisconsin should keep the Midwest Student Exchange in mind.

If you reside in another state, check to see whether your state has some deal in place with higher education institutions in nearby states. You might just get lucky.


Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How great scenery and natural splendor could become a “deal breaker” for you
  • What the Rocky Mountain states offer that you never considered
  • Why you shouldn’t wait to get your application in when there is a financial deal available

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