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Marijuana: CU-Boulder official says jump in admissions has nothing to do with weed

Last week, Fox News shared a piece suggesting that a jump in admissions at colleges across Colorado may be related to the passage of Amendment 64, which legalized retail pot sales.

Of course, eighteen-year-old college freshmen couldn't take advantage of this law anyhow, since it only pertains to adults ages 21 and over. But even if this fact isn't widely understood, one University of Colorado official has a very different explanation for his school's admissions application jump -- and it has nothing to do with weed.

As we've reported, CU-Boulder has worked long and hard to downplay its reputation as a marijuana mecca, with a particular focus on a 4/20 celebration that had grown into one of the nation's largest.

Here's a photo from the 2011 event.

Marijuana: CU-Boulder official says jump in admissions has nothing to do with weed

After this bash, administrators looking to end the 4/20 commemoration once and for all took the extraordinary step of closing the campus to non-students on April 20, 2012. Here's a pic from that date:

Marijuana: CU-Boulder official says jump in admissions has nothing to do with weed

The closure took place on April 20, 2013, too, with a similar shutdown planned for this April 20, which happens to fall on Easter Sunday.

But even if no trees are burned when the clock strikes 4:20 p.m. that day at Norlin Quad, ground zero for previous 4/20 bashes, the legalization of recreational marijuana sales means national media outlets will continue linking the school, and others in Colorado, to marijuana use, as witnessed by the aforementioned Fox News report.

That's frustrating for CU admissions director Kevin MacLennan. His office has indeed seen a big increase in applications: 29 percent this year, he says. But he doesn't think marijuana had much, if anything, to do with it.

Kevin MacLennan.
Kevin MacLennan.

Instead, MacLennan believes the main reason for the rise is CU's new affiliation with CommonApp.org, the online home of the Common Application, which allows students to apply to multiple member schools using the same form.

The Common Application has been around for 35 years. For most of this span, MacLennan says, the majority of members were private institutions. But in recent years, more public universities have joined in, bringing the total number of colleges accessible via the website to around 500. This critical mass made engaging with CommonApp.org even more appealing, MacLennan acknowledges.

"We'd been looking at this possibility for three to four years," he notes. "And we thought the timing was right to make this move. We wanted to raise the academic profile of our applicant pool to see if it would give us a further reach. And the process is very convenient. Each school may have a slightly different supplement attached, where they ask specific questions for that institution. But when you fill out the Common Application, you can then submit it to any of the 500 school members" instead of completing one for each school.

Continue for more about CU, marijuana and the Common Application.

CU applied to sign up with CommonApp.org in October 2012 and was approved the following February to begin using the application as of last August 1 for the fall of 2014 class. In the meantime, MacLennan says, "we reached out to the most recent member of this grouping, Ohio State. They had gone live a year before us, and when we asked what we should prepare for, they told us they'd experienced an increase of 25 percent in freshman applications."

MacLennan heard similar predictions from admissions officials at Colorado State University and the University of Denver, both of which have used the Common Application for years. "They said you need to be ready for a big increase," he recalls, "and they couldn't have been more correct."

Not that CU's bump is the nation's largest. MacLennan points out that admissions applications at Georgia Tech, another new member, has seen a boost of between 42 and 45 percent.

Is it possible some of the new applicants were motivated to give CU a chance because of Amendment 64? If so, there's no way to quantify such moves, since the university hasn't been surveying families in the applicant pool on this particular subject. However, MacLennan doubts it.

"We host more than 20,000 prospective students and their families who are looking at the campus each year, and we're not getting those questions," he maintains. "We have a Q&A session that's part of that, and every once in a while, someone will ask a question about clarifying the law. But those have been few and far between. And there's no way to tell based on an admissions application what's actually influencing the students.

"One thing the Fox article got right, I suppose, is that some people are likely to be influenced positively" by legal recreational marijuana sales, "and some people are going to be influenced negatively by it," MacLennan goes on. "But if it was a concern from a negative position, we'd hear about it in those sessions. And we're just not getting those questions."

For that reason, MacLennan thinks the CommonApp.org is much more likely than marijuana to explain the application boom. In his words, "when you make it simpler for students to apply and you can use a one-stop shopping tool, it makes it very efficient for folks to apply to more than one school."

Including ones where marijuana is still sold on the sly, not in stores.

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive circa March 4: "Photos: CU-Boulder's 4/20 closure guards against 'chaos,' spokesman says."