Distance to the University of Wyoming presents barriers for local students

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As University of Wyoming officials look at ways to increase enrollment at the state’s only four-year university, locals asked UW leaders to make it easier for Big Horn Basin residents to earn their degrees closer to home.

Fall enrollment at the University of Wyoming this fall stood at 12,366 students on the 15th day of classes, the day it became official.

That is down slightly from 12,619 students in fall 2015, UW President Laurie Nichols told about 90 people gathered Nov. 30 at the Park County Library.

Nichols and other UW representatives made the stop in Cody to give a presentation and seek public comment for the university’s five-year strategic planning process. That process is underway now to develop a plan to guide the institution from 2018-2022.

The university’s highest fall enrollment since 2009 occurred in 2012, with 12,867 students attending that year. Since then, it has decreased slightly each year.

“We need to stop the decline in enrollment. It needs our attention as we think about our future,” Nichols told the Big Horn Basin residents gathered at the library for the listening session. 

Professor Alyson Hagy, with the UW creative writing program, is helping with recruitment and transition at the university. Hagy said 348 of this year’s UW students are from Park County, and the county also is home to 2,125 UW alumni.

That’s fairly impressive, she said, considering the 377-mile distance from Northwest College in Powell to the university in Laramie.

Still, that distance — the longest between UW and any community college in the state — remains a challenge for many.

The listening session audience included several nontraditional students working toward bachelor’s or graduate degrees, as well as previous students who recently earned degrees. Some spoke of their desire to attend the University of Wyoming. But, when faced with an inability to relocate, they ultimately felt they had no choice but to transfer to another institution that was closer or that offered more options for earning their degrees online.

One nontraditional student said she wanted to go to UW, but she has a job and a home here, and animals to care for.

She and others asked that the university expand its presence in the Big Horn Basin, either through classes at the NWC Cody Center, the NWC campus in Powell, or more online class offerings, to make it more feasible for local residents to earn their degrees through the University of Wyoming.

Brad Bonner of Cody (a co-owner of the Powell Tribune) said he believes the university can attract more traditional age high school graduates and transfer students in northwest Wyoming by making more contact in high schools, and by providing as many opportunities as possible for local students to visit the UW campus.

“Students here are so far away that they don’t get a chance to see what you have now,” he said.

Bonner told of his conversations with some friends whose children are considering where they might go for a college education.

“We’ve been telling them about the University of Wyoming story forever,” he said. “We’ve been telling them about the jewel that it is in Laramie.”

“They kind of pooh-poohed that, then we finally coaxed them one day to come with us. ... They were literally blown away by what has transpired there and those magnificent structures there, and what $1 billion (in capital construction funding) can buy.

“If you live in Cheyenne or Laramie, it happens all the time; you’re there. But if you live in Cody or Powell or Worland ... they don’t get a chance to see the magnificence that you have now.”

Nichols thanked him for the suggestion and said she has realized the importance of making contact with students in high schools.

“One of the things I learned very quickly ... is that I need to get into the high schools,” she said. “I am now going to all high schools when I go into the communities.”

Carol Bell of the Northwest College Foundation said she is encouraged by the fact that Nichols, in her short tenure at the University of Wyoming, has already visited Park County four or five times.

“It gives me a lot of hope for the future,” she said. “We’re all going to move forward a lot more healthfully and happier if we do it together.”

University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols provided additional demographic information about this year’s students at UW during a listening session in Cody on Nov. 30:

“We’re bringing in good-quality students who are academically prepared,” Nichols said.

She said University of Wyoming leaders are evaluating 14 low-enrollment programs for possible elimination as they work to trim $10 million off the university’s budget.

According to information presented at the listening session, the top 10 programs at the university now are:

UW Business College programs didn’t make the top 10 list, but are among the top 15.

Nichols didn’t name the programs being considered for elimination.

Kelly Spiering of Powell urged caution in making a decision to end any UW program.

He noted UW’s seed analysis program in the UW College of Agriculture is small, but its graduates are vital to the agricultural industry in the Big Horn Basin.

“I would really like to see the university strengthen the ag program,” Spiering said. “It doesn’t mean you come back to the farm. You can do research; you can write your own ticket to the world. ... It can be very rewarding.”

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