Higher Education: Weed Gives Universities Edge On Freshman Recruits

U.S. News may want to add another category to its popular university rankings data: In-State Legalized Weed.

College application data and anecdotal evidence, not to mention common sense, suggest universities in states where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use—Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C.— have a compelling, unspoken lure for wooing freshman students from out of state: easy access to weed and psycho-active edibles.

A random sampling of university admissions data finds schools in pot-legal states have been harvesting out of state applications at a healthy clip, confirming something every high school stoner in the country knows in his or her gut.

“Legal weed is definitely a factor for some students when they are choosing colleges,” said a recent New York City high school graduate, adding he has friends who enrolled at schools in Oregon and California, where recreational weed is now legal. “It wasn’t the only reason they chose their schools, but they were very psyched to be in weed-friendly states.”

All nine states (and DC) with legalized weed have an age restriction on the books—it’s only for sale to adults over the age of 21. While that makes weed and edibles off-limits to most 18-year-old freshman, the barrier to access when it comes to getting pot is “pretty much non-existent,” explained a student who attends a school in southern California. “If you don’t have ID, someone you know will. And they’ll share it or go buy it for you.”

Rocky Mountain High

The rush is clearly on in Colorado. There were 23,010 out of state applications to the University of Colorado system for the class of 2015. In 2017-18, the number was up to 25,626. For this year’s 2018-19 academic class, the number ballooned to 27,469.

You can expect that number to go higher. The Colorado state legislature approved a bill to accept up to 685 additional non-resident students. If Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the bill, it is projected to add an estimated $25.4 million in additional revenue for the University of Colorado system over the next three years.

University of Colorado, Boulder
iStock /wellesenterprises

Nevada’s biggest state school, UNLV, has also hit the jackpot with out of state applicants. From 2010 to 2015 out-of-state applications at UNLV ranged from 1923 (2011) to 2869 (2013). In 2016, the year a ballot initiative to legalize weed for recreational weed passed, out-of-state applications hit 3275, an increase of nearly 20% over the previous year. In 2017, the number of non-Nevadan applicants was 3591, but that number skyrocketed this year to an astounding 5302 submissions.

A spokesperson for the university attributed the leap to a decision by the UNLV admissions department to accept the Common Application in 2018, which simplified the application process.  And of course, where Vegas is concerned, there are other extra-educational attractions: the climate, the night-life, a youth-oriented job market and casino-culture.

California has been America’s most weed-friendly state for years, thanks to its medical marijuana laws. Over the last ten years, the number out-of-state applicants more than tripled for schools in the much-admired California University system, going from 10,916 in 2008 to 32,808 in 2017. Curiously, 2017 showed a slight drop—the first in ten years—from 2016’s 33,688. But for this year’s freshman class—the first to arrive with marijuana for sale to the general public—the number rose to 34,372, according to the Mercury News.

These numbers are far ahead of the national average increase of applicants at state universities. According to a report in the Washington Post, the flagship schools in 50 states received 1.3 million applications in 2016, up 79 percent compared with ten years earlier. That’s chump change compared to UC’s 300% growth.

A Note of Caution

There are a number of things to bear in mind when considering these numbers. Without polling individual applicants, it’s impossible to be sure exactly what factors compelled them to apply to a school.

It is the nature of the college recruiting business to try and increase applicants—that’s why schools spend money marketing to graduating high school seniors. When the number of applicants rises at a school while the number of acceptances remains flat, the institution can claim it has become more selective and competitive. This, in turn, boosts its reputation and creates a halo effect.

Lecture in a darkened university lecture theatre, student POV
iStock / monkeybusinessimages

More kids will apply, goes the accepted logic, which generates additional funds. Alumni donors may reach for their checkbooks, too, pleased their alma mater is perceived as moving up in the world. Theoretically, more funds mean more improvements for the school—in student-teacher ratios, new academic programs, and campus facilities. In a perfect world, such windfalls might even result in—gasp—lowering tuition costs! (That hasn’t seemed to happen yet.)

Apples to Oranges

As for schools in states where pot remains illegal, some have flourished while others have seen lapses. For instance, the University of Delaware, which has a sizeable out-of-state student population, saw the number of non-Delawarian applicants drop from 23,409 in 2014 to 22,574 in 2016.

It will be interesting to watch applications to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. From 2010 to 2017 out of state applications climb every year, from 12,524 to 20,022. For the 2018 school year—the first year recreational pot was legal in the state—non-resident applicants dropped slightly.

“That sounds like an outlier,” shrugged the college student, when told of the surprising ebb of wannabe Minutemen. “I’m pretty sure that number will be on the rise in the future.”

Higher Education: Weed Gives Universities Edge On Freshman Recruits was last modified: by
Seth Kaufman

About the author: Seth Kaufman is a New York-based journalist. He published two books this year: Pitino: My Story and Metaphysical Graffiti: Rock's Most Mind-Bending Questions.