Is Marijuana Legalization Boosting College Enrollment?

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The year that recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, enrollment at the University of Colorado shot up by thirty-three percent. That was 2014. Applications from out of state rose even further, producing a forty-three percent rise in prospective students. International applications saw a sixty-five percent spike.

The admissions office is sure these spikes have nothing to do with weed. As University of Colorado admissions director Kevin MacLennan explained, students and families just weren’t asking a lot of questions about marijuana. That’s like saying that you’re sure the new banana factory next door has nothing to do with the sudden influx of monkeys in the neighborhood, mostly because none of the monkeys have made a formal inquiry on the subject.

Rocky Mountain High?

University admissions officers are simply incredulous that Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana in the state of Colorado, could possibly be behind a statewide increase in college applications at a time when fewer people are applying to colleges nationwide. To wit, spokesman for Colorado State University, Mike Hooker said,

“I have a hard time believing that someone is going to make that kind of significant decision about investing in their education based on whether they can smoke marijuana in the state. There may be some water cooler talk about what effect Amendment 64 might have, but we believe there are more significant factors that drive enrollment decisions.”

To quote the wisest of history’s cinematic stoners, Jeffrey Lebowski, “that’s just like you’re opinion, man.”

The truth is, no good way exists to track this information, and while colleges in Colorado don’t believe the recent surge in applications has anything to do with marijuana, they can’t disprove the theory.

Naturally, it isn’t the only factor. Colorado recently moved to a Common Application, which is most assuredly a factor. The Common Application — of which about five hundred colleges and university are a party — allows students to apply to multiple schools using a single platform. It’s not uncommon for schools joining the Common Application to see a notable spike in applications in their first year.

The University of Colorado notes it also recruited more aggressively, sending emissaries to high schools all over the country in an effort to raise its profile. Evidence suggests both moves had a direct impact on Colorado’s wider pool of applicants.

But… that doesn’t mean legal marijuana wasn’t also a factor.

Indeed, while the University of Colorado can point to reasonable alternatives behind the admissions spike, the same explanations can’t justify the anomalous spike at the University of Colorado–Boulder Law School.

Between 2014 and 2015, the Law School saw a twenty-two percent increase in first-year students, admitting a class of 205, as opposed to 168 in the year prior. This wasn’t just a single year jump, though. In fact, the Law School had generally enrolled somewhere between 160 to 180 first-year students every fall semester since 2005. The 2014 incoming class was actually its smallest since 1973.

And then 2015 happened.

So what’s behind the jump? Are law schools in general experiencing heightened interest? Actually, nearly two-thirds of all association-approved law schools in the US saw a drop in enrollment between 2014 and 2015. Across the entire sector, applications were down a full four percent year to year, according to the Law School Admission Council.

Part of the Law School’s surge was most assuredly fed by out-of-state students. Roughly seventy percent of the 2015 crop of students came from out of state, as compared to fifty-nine percent the year before.

Is marijuana the X factor that has allowed Colorado’s schools to dodge the bullet of declining college and grad school enrollment? The impact is hard to measure, and it’s not unreasonable to presume college kids are reluctant to communicate their interest in marijuana to their academic advisors, regardless of its legal status. Russ Belville, a marijuana activist and regular contributor to High Times, notes that both the South and Midwest have suffered significant drops in enrollment just as Colorado saw a statewide thirty percent surge in applications. While the role of marijuana legalization in this surge remains undefined, Belville calls it the “bong-smoking elephant in the room.”

Green Campus?

So, why not hypothesize a relationship between these trends and the end to marijuana prohibition in Colorado? After all, mainstream social acceptance and usage of marijuana have accelerated among college-aged students over just the last two decades. Whether one plans to smoke it or not, Pew Research recently found that, among respondents, “fifty-three percent favor the legal use of marijuana, while forty-four percent are opposed. The opinion represents a dramatic shift from 2006, when only thirty-two percent supported legalization and nearly double that amount (sixty percent) opposed.”

Attitudes on the subject have relaxed, and this is especially true at the college level. Many will experience their first exposure to marijuana on campus.

In other words, many students are ideologically and culturally aligned with Colorado’s stance on marijuana. According to a study conducted among respondents between 2013 and 2015, “the probability of students having tried marijuana for the first time during college increased ten percent each year — compared to those not enrolled in college. Specifically, in 2013, thirty-one percent of students tried marijuana for the first time in college, and in 2015 — fifty-one percent. Alternatively, between 1977 and 2012, the average college student having tried marijuana for the first time lingered between seventeen percent and twenty percent.”

So these figures suggest — whether consciously or incidentally — a slight majority of college students either view or approach college as an opportunity to experiment with marijuana. Obviously, it’s quite a leap to suggests that this disposition is causing applicants to make such an important decision as where to attend college simply because of legal weed.

Of course, they probably aren’t making their decisions based on weed alone. Colorado is also a beautiful state with majestic mountain ranges, wide open spaces, gorgeous campus grounds, and stellar winter sports destinations. On top of that, many schools in Colorado do have a tradition of excellence. As Dean Philip Weiser of the Colorado Law School insists, “We’ve been really working hard at communicating our value proposition and why Colorado Law is a special place to be… We are getting that story out there. That story picks up on the fact that we are really helping our students on the job front.”

No doubt, all of these are factors when a prospective student is deciding where to send an application. Now, add that as a college student, you can smoke marijuana without fear of legal reprisal. If you’re weighing the pros of cons, and you either enjoy marijuana or hope to experience it during your time in college, marijuana legalization would probably fall into the “pros” column.

That marijuana is legal in Colorado doesn’t necessarily mean it’s permissible on a college campus in Colorado. There are number of factors to consider. First and foremost, the legal age for marijuana consumption in Colorado is twenty-one. Like underage drinking, underage marijuana use is both illegal and a violation of policy for pretty much every campus everywhere.

Education News also makes the compelling point that the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act inherently supersedes any state-based law on the subject. This means that technically, it is illegal to possess or smoke marijuana on campus, even in a state as groovy as Colorado. It’s also worth noting that colleges and universities in the state have generally done their best to de-emphasize the potential appeal of legal weed.

Education News notes further that many schools provide marijuana safety classes, health-related education, and frequent reminders that future employers may drug test, regardless of marijuana’s legal status. On the subject of drug testing, marijuana is also on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s list of prohibited substances.

All of this is to say that Colorado’s colleges and universities don’t want you coming to their campuses just to prepare for the Cannabis Cup. (By contrast, Northern Michigan University seems to actually want you to come to their school for that very reason, if their new course in Medicinal Plant Chemistry is any indication. Unlike Colorado, you still can’t possess marijuana in Michigan, so this class is more theory than practice, but still… .)

Of course, Colorado isn’t the only state with legal recreational weed. Oregon also joined the fray in 2014. In the wake of legalization, researcher found rates of usage rose across all seven schools examined. In other words, even if people aren’t choosing their state of college just for the legal weed, the legal status appeals to campus residents.

But, by and large, neither Colorado’s schools nor Oregon’s are interested in hearing that their enrollment boost may in some way be connected to smoking.

The Green Effect

Of course, this view stands in contradiction with everything else we know about the impact of legalization.

The bottom line is that marijuana makes money, and not just for the people that grow, sell, and tax it. From pot tourism, to state taxation on consumption, to the cottage industries that revolve around growing operations, marijuana legalization generally tends to feed all manner of economic sectors at the state and local levels. As the most prominent and deregulated environment in the US, Colorado has legitimately enjoyed the spoils.

According to a 2016 study from the Marijuana Policy Group, a cannabis-focused economic and public policy consulting firm base in Denver, “each dollar spent on retail marijuana in Colorado — both recreational and medical — generated $2.40 in economic activity.”

There’s the obvious collateral impact in areas where farming and growing operations have proliferated, with warehouses, plots of land, botanical retail operations, and packaging companies all seeing a boost. But security services, lawyers, and consultants specializing in cannabis have also found good work in Colorado. Some small towns have even come to revolve largely around marijuana cultivation, making legalization the basic driver behind some local economies.

All of this is to suggest that if Colorado’s colleges are seeing a bump in applications because of marijuana legalization, it would place them on the same footing as most other industries in the state.

Still, it must be reiterated, we can’t know for certain. Any evidence that suggests a connection is circumstantial. Most evidence to the contrary is anecdotal. This is a subject that awaits true empirical research. So says David Kerr, an Oregon State University associate professor and author of the study “Changes in undergraduates’ marijuana, heavy alcohol, and cigarette use following legalization of recreational marijuana use in Oregon,” who argues that “Americans are conducting a big experiment with marijuana. We need science to tell us what the results of it are.”

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