Emily Hatton, senior writer
Amid shifting student demographics and growing enrollment pressure industry-wide, Westminster College in Utah's Salt Lake Valley has carved out a niche market spot for itself: the go-to college for United States Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) athletes.
This year, 64 current and alumni USSA team members are studying at the small liberal arts college through a partnership grant program that designates Westminster as the official traditional college partner of USSA. The group includes 22 of USSA's national team members—enabling the athletes to work toward a degree while also giving the college national and international visibility. Since the program's launch in 2005, about 140 athletes have enrolled at Westminster.
Westminster sits just 30 minutes from USSA's Center of Excellence—a training facility in Park City—and an hour from nine mountain resorts. While the college's location helped springboard the program, "the thing that's kept it going is students who have participated," says Deb Vickery, who heads up the program on Westminster's side and is director of the school's academic advising and support center.
Under the partnership, USSA athletes accepted to Westminster through the normal admissions process receive part of a predetermined amount of grant money.
The current contract, signed in spring of 2015 and running through June 2019, designates 600 free credit hours per year for USSA athletes. This academic year that comes out to $724,000, all of which Westminster provides.
Members of the Skiing A, B, C, and Snowboarding Professional and Rookie teams are eligible for the grants, as are any USSA alumni who began the Westminster program while they were active members.
Because of a recent surge in the program's popularity among athletes, the school slightly restructured how the grants are awarded. Now it splits credit hours about 50-50 between active and alumni athletes. From there, it's a bit on the "first come, first serve" basis, says Vickery. She says they do, however, try to ensure USSA students on track to graduate this year and those who want to take their first class receive the funds to do so.
These aren't your traditional nontraditional students
While many colleges and universities now enroll a greater share of "nontraditional" students, Westminster's USSA population offers a twist on that definition.
Currently, program participants' ages range from 17 to 32, and depending on the year, active members balance coursework with World Cup competitions, the X-Games, Olympic qualifiers, and the Olympics themselves. Yet as a group, the students still manage to maintain an average 3.568 GPA.
"A majority of these students have had to balance academics their whole life," Vickery says. "Most students will do a lot better, whether its high school or college, if they're more involved in different activities and sports, because they have to be a better time manager."
Many USSA students pursue business and marketing majors, which set them up to continue working in the winter sports industry. But a large share of the group now gravitates toward health care roles, Vickery says.
The school's small size means faculty can be flexible with students who miss class for a competition. And Vickery helps students pick the best semester to take various courses. Science classes are best done in the summer and fall, she says, when USSA students are more likely to be on campus. Spring is usually better suited for online courses.
Athletics benefit from academics
Spending time in class actually helps these athletes on the mountain too, says Jory Macomber, VP of Athlete Career and Education at USSA.
"Twenty years ago, people would retire at age 24 or 25 after an Olympics and says, 'Well, I gotta get on with my life.' But now a lot of our stars are in their 30s, and part of that is having confidence that they'll be okay in their next step, and the college programs provide that," he says.
Now, 80 of USSA's 208 athletes are enrolled in at least one college course. Forty team members are high school age, so about half of the adults are pursuing higher education, Macomber says.
Taking a few classes each year relieves a lot of anxiety that comes with "spending ten years chasing your skiing dream," Macomber says. "Taking care of an athlete's educational path will help their performance and keep them in the sport longer."
Exposure and enrollment
As these students prolong their athletic careers, Westminster gains more exposure and market penetration within the competitive ski industry.
Though the school has never officially measured the program's effect on enrollment, Vickery says that she has noticed growth anecdotally.
In addition to media coverage, press releases, and international visibility at competitions, word of mouth plays a major role in increasing enrollment, Vickery says. Often, more applications will roll in from the ski programs and academies that USSA athletes' came up through, Vickery says.
"It definitely broadens and expands our student population," she says.
International athletes, normal students
Despite competing at the highest level, this cohort still finds ways to enjoy typical student activities, Vickery says.
"They really want to college experience," she says. That may mean joining a club or study group, living in residence halls, rooming with other students off campus, or just heading to the mountains on the weekends to ride with classmates.
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