Starting this fall, students enrolled at Western Colorado University in Gunnison can emerge with a degree from the state’s top computer science school, the University of Colorado in Boulder.
It’ll cost them less over the four years compared to Boulder, and classes won’t be as crowded. Plus, it’s cheaper to rent an apartment in this scenic mountain town (pop. 6,530), where parking isn’t usually a problem. Students have the same coursework and learn from CU faculty, who live in the same town.
Western is the second school to partner with CU on a program that is also helping the Gunnison campus quickly ramp up after receiving an $80 million gift from alumnus Paul Rady, chairman and CEO of Antero Resources, a Denver oil and gas company. The funds are being used to create the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering and to construct a 75,000-square-foot facility with a computer lab slated to open in 2020.
“My hope and intent is for Western to be able to participate and join in on the opportunities that we see in education,” said Rady, who traveled to Gunnison on Thursday to check on the progress. “It’s wonderful that CU’s engineering and computer science school has been willing and able to be that bridge so Western could take action much sooner and capitalize on CU’s curriculum, their instructors and their pedigree.”
Graduates with computer science and engineering degrees are in demand nationwide, so it’s no surprise there has been a push to expand academic programs statewide. But most Colorado schools resort to online programs. Two of those schools are Colorado State University and Regis University, where remote students can earn a bachelor’s or master’s in computer science.
“The engineering college is the fastest-growing segment of the CU Boulder campus,” said Bobby Braun, the dean of CU’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. “It’s also true nationally. Engineering colleges across the country are growing. There’s high interest from young people because of professional career paths. Just this year, we crossed 5,000 undergrads in our college. Including graduate students, we have 7,000 students. We also have 325 faculty members and 250 on staff. And that’s just in Boulder.”
But there is only so much space in Boulder, said Braun, who became dean three years ago when the school had 6,000 students. This August, 1,000 incoming undergraduates are expected to start in the school’s 14 computer science and engineering degree programs.
“We’re the flagship engineering college in the state. We exist for the public good, and we want every up-and-coming engineer to join our college community,” said Braun, adding that a majority of the program’s students are from Front Range high schools and community colleges. “But we can only build so many buildings in Boulder and only accept so many students on our campus. There’s a limit at our dining halls, our classrooms and rec centers.”
The partnership between the two schools appears to be rare nationwide. This isn’t a satellite campus of CU. Nor are students sitting in front of computer screens and watching CU professors teach lessons from Boulder. It’s the same curriculum, and students talk to professors in person.
It seems to be working.
But will they come?
About a decade ago, CU approached Colorado Mesa University, in Grand Junction, about a partnership.
But CU’s pitch was for the students to spend two years in Grand Junction for prerequisite classes and then move to Boulder to wrap up the degree, recalls CMU President Tim Foster. This was around 2007 or 2008, when the school was called Mesa State College.
Foster sought out the opinions of local engineers, business people and leaders.
“They weren’t wild about that at all,” Foster said. “The pushback was that ‘No, we really want to have something here.’ And looking at (CU’s engineering dean Robert H. Davis at the time), it was ‘That ain’t going to happen.’”
But the community still wanted something to build an engineering-talent pipeline for local businesses, such as Leitner-Poma of America, a ski-lift manufacturer, or Reynolds Polymer Technology, which makes highly engineered acrylic tanks. The school put out a request for proposals.
That led to pitches from other state schools, including Colorado School of Mines and CSU. Eventually, CU came around and agreed to keep the program in Grand Junction. CMU students would spend all four years in the city — the first two taking prerequisite classes taught by CMU faculty and the last two studying CU curriculum taught by CU professors living in Grand Junction.
But even after everything was said and done, Foster said there was skepticism by CU officials. They worried whether CMU would find enough students and whether those students were up to snuff for such challenging courses.
After all, CU does pretty well compared with other computer-science programs. It was the only Colorado school — at No. 53 — on the “100 Best Computer Science Programs in the World” by TheBestSchools.org. And of 188 graduate programs on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Computer Science Schools,” CU ranked the highest of the five Colorado state schools included. CU landed at No. 40, followed by CSU at No. 75, Mines at No. 91, CU Colorado Springs at No. 133 and CU Denver at No. 147.
“Four years later, everyone takes the professional engineering exam,” Foster said. They were scored, and among the Boulder and CMU students who took the test, “the highest is a young woman from our program,” he said with pride. “And our average scores on the exam are higher than the students in Boulder. … We contend that we do as good a job, if not better, in what we’re doing here.”
In 2008, the first year, there were 10 students in the program. Now there are about 100 in mechanical engineering, the lone CU degree until 2017. Degrees in civil engineering and in electrical and computer engineering were added to the program over the past two years.
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MaKayla Kovac earned a mechanical engineering degree in 2017. The Erie High School softball player, who has a penchant for math and science, had considered CU, but she chose CMU after getting a softball scholarship.
“Boulder was always kind of my dream school. I grew up 20 minutes away. I grew up watching the Buffs. My aunt is a Buff,” Kovac said. “But they didn’t have a softball program.”
She spent five years at CMU, ultimately getting into the CU mechanical engineering program after an upperclassman on the softball team told her about it. She doesn’t remember the exact costs, but the first three years, she paid CMU tuition, which was offset by her athletic scholarship, and then CU tuition the second two years.
“I remember my tuition was $18,000 a year for CU,” she said. “I want to say just my tuition for Mesa, without room and board, was around $9,000.”
Littleton native Billy Ramsey, a 2018 high school graduate, got accepted into CU’s engineering school, but when he heard that he could get the same degree in Grand Junction and play for the golf team, he chose the Western Slope. The prestige of a CU degree helped his job hunt and potential employers liked to hear about the intimacy of the program.
“We were more fortunate at Mesa,” said Ramsey, now an oil and gas regulatory analyst at Vanoko Consulting in Denver. “There were smaller class sizes (of around 30). I had a couple of friends who went to CU and they did the same programs, but they had classes of 50 to 100 students, plus they had to work with TAs rather than speaking straight to the teacher to get the answers. We were on a first-name basis (with teachers) and they knew our backstory.”
The hope? More talent, more jobs
There’s a growing amount of manufacturing on the Western Slope that would benefit from employees with engineering chops. Andris Zobs, chief operations officer for thematic playground maker ID Sculpture in Gunnison, said it’s not easy to find people with the skills his company needs, so he mostly hires local people and trains them.
“People come here for the quality of life and have to develop new industries in the valley to support themselves,”said Zobs, who pleads guilty to this. He left New England in 2000 to hang out with friends in Gunnison and never used his return ticket. “Our community is really resourceful and the growth of manufacturing and design companies on the Western Slope is a result of that.”
But he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the new Western engineering program will create that pipeline of talent that local businesses seek.
“There’s more and more need for higher-skill positions and design, especially for us,” he said. “We need people with digital fabrication skills and computer drafting.”
Western’s program will start with two CU degrees: computer science and mechanical engineering. The school has an existing computer-science program, but didn’t have the funds or bandwidth to turn it into a specialty school. With the gift from Rady, however, joining CU’s program added the prestige that will help grow its new school.
“The credibility that is added with the partnership is hard not to overstate,” said Greg Salsbury, Western’s president. “CU gets 9,000 applications for about 900 openings. If you go to a top computer science school like Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo (California), I hired the chair as a consultant. He gets 6,000 applications for his 110 slots. It’s hugely in demand. The salaries are eye-popping, and a lot of those are six-figure jobs.”
It’s also less competitive to get into the CU program via Western or Mesa universities, and students avoid paying CU’s out-of-state tuition since the lower in-state tuition requires students to have lived in Colorado for at least 12 months.
Chad Merrick, who graduated from the CU program at Mesa in May, came from Utah. He remembers tuition was more than double. CU’s in-state tuition is currently around $15,000 a year and nonresident tuition is around $40,000. (Mesa’s expenses for Utah residents living on campus will be $13,863 for the upcoming year.)
“I would have considered Boulder, but it’s ridiculously expensive for out-of-state students,” said Merrick, who still lives in Grand Junction and is hunting for a job.
About 30 students are starting in CU program at Western this fall.
“The capacity issue is a big one,” Salsbury said. “I’ve talked to young people with truly remarkable GPAs and SAT scores who are unable to get into a top 20 university. I say, come look at us. Just prove yourself for two years and you’re in. Plus, if you like natural beauty, you might prefer this campus.”
The CU partnership program isn’t unheard of, Salsbury said. But it’s not offered at other Colorado universities.
CU Denver is launching a new program at its campus called Computer Science Plus, which connects computer science with another field. After launching this fall, it will be available online, according to school officials.
Besides its online degrees, CSU has partnered with the Castle Rock campus of Arapahoe Community College to offer a “2+2” computer-science program starting this fall. That means students spend two years in Castle Rock and then travel to Fort Collins to study at CSU for the remaining two years. CU Boulder has a similar program and works with six community colleges statewide, including the Steamboat Springs campus of Colorado Mountain College.
“It’s a long game”
In May of each year, many graduating seniors trek down the mountain to walk with their Boulder peers.
Two years ago, when it was her time to graduate, Kovac remembers one classmate’s family had a motorhome, so several students piled in and drove down to make the evening ceremony.
“Then we all piled back into the RV and drove back to Grand Junction and made it back in time for the 8 a.m. (graduation) walk at Colorado Mesa,” said Kovac, now a facilities mechanical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.
She has a lot of fond memories, and she realizes that she was better suited for a smaller school.
“I dated a guy who was in the mechanical engineering at CU,” she said. “There was a lot of differences in how we studied. We had more interaction with professors and students. At Boulder, it was more like you knew a few people in your class but you didn’t know what they were doing tomorrow. We got to know everyone like brothers and sisters at CMU.”
Jim Prinster is excited about the program’s growth, especially if it’s providing talent to existing businesses. The Grand Junction native who is from the family that started City Markets was one of the locals urging Mesa officials to add an engineering program in the early 2000s (“I’m sure in reality, I wasn’t the only one, but I think I pestered the most to get it going,” he said).
“The key with a university getting involved is that it’s a long game,” he said. “You’re looking 20 years out at minimum that you’re going to have someone go through college, come up with an idea that will be the next Facebook or the guy who’s developing the next widget that somebody needs or everybody needs.”
Braun, the CU dean, hopes both programs continue to grow and believes Western’s program could see twice as many freshman when the new building opens next year.
“Our mission in this college is to provide an engineering education to every student in the state that wants one,” he said. “And not every student in the state wants to come to Boulder. Frankly, they shouldn’t have to, to get the education we’re providing.”