2020’s Most In-Demand University: Nature

Source Images Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Why you should care

More and more college students are opting for programs that teach them how to live in and with nature.

  • As enrollments in traditional college programs drop, the demand for outdoors, wilderness-based courses is rocketing amid the pandemic.
  • Wilderness and outdoors programs are having to extend their waitlists to cater to the demand.

No phones. Sticks and smooth stones instead of toilet paper. Hauling a 40-pound backpack across valleys and mountains for miles at a time.

Taking classes in and about the great outdoors might not always have been the first choice of many American college students. But in this new world of education-by-Zoom, many are powering off their laptops and hitting the outdoors — to learn.

For 20-year-old Claire Babbott-Bryan from Northampton, Massachusetts, online classes last spring at Middlebury College in Vermont were “really not compatible” with her learning style, she says. “It produced a ton of stress and a ton of frustration. I did not feel like it was a legitimate education.”


Pickards Mountain in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

So this fall she’s enrolled in the Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain in North Carolina, where she’s currently studying regenerative agriculture and how to live with and from the land. She sleeps in a yurt surrounded by a forest, and spends from 16 to 20 hours a day outdoors. “You wake up at 6:45 a.m. and have a morning practice (meditation or yoga), then we do our farm chores before breakfast,” she says. “I’m definitely going to bed earlier.”

She’s far from alone. The pandemic has seen enrollments at many traditional college programs fall, with community colleges experiencing a 7.5 percent hit as families shy from paying heavy tuition for an online or hybrid education they’re not confident about.

But interest in outdoor and wilderness courses has rocketed. By May, there had been a 60 percent increase in searches for “gap year,” according to Google Trends. Gap year organizations are seeing a fivefold increase in inquiries.

The phone just started ringing with lots of enquiries from 18-year-olds or their parents looking for options on wilderness courses.

Tom Holland, Wilderness Adventures, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

“As a benchmark for outdoors, we are seeing a boon of new programs that are largely filling quickly, as well as established programs now having to create waitlists for fall of 2020 and spring of 2021,” says Ethan Knight of the Gap Year Association, which facilitates a range of programs in the U.S. and overseas, many of which are outdoor themed.

Tom Holland, who runs Wilderness Adventures out of Jackson Hole in Wyoming, says his company wasn’t planning on offering a gap year course this fall. “(But) the phone just started ringing with lots of enquiries from 18-year-olds or their parents looking for options on wilderness courses,” he says. The company has courses on topics from fly-fishing to community service for students ranging from fifth grade to high school graduates in the U.S., Costa Rica, Australia and Europe. He says that while his company has always offered summer courses to 18- and 19-year-olds, it had never taken them into the fall and spring — until this year. “We sold our program out.”

Leaders in wilderness education such as Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) are also experiencing oversubscription of their courses. AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Conservation Corps, which, among other things, holds outdoor skills and training activities, is seeing a 150 percent increase in applications due to the pandemic.

Accommodating this surge in demand amid a pandemic isn’t easy though, and these schools and companies have had to adapt. NOLS, which specializes in wilderness medicine and outdoor skills, and offers academic credit options through several universities, has had to cut the number of courses it offers for health and safety reasons associated with COVID-19.

Anna M. Maynard

Pickards Mountain in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

And to enhance the physical distancing of students and staff, some courses are no longer taught at its campus in Lander, Wyoming, but at a site outside town, to reduce the possibility of students mixing with locals.

The outdoor education industry hasn’t completely escaped the tentacles of the “coronavirus economy” either. NOLS went through a 60 percent reduction in staff in April, and where it is still holding classes, it has reduced numbers by a third to 20 students. Courses at its seven international locations have been suspended until spring. Furthermore, there are concerns about unequal access to such wilderness courses, as college-age students of color often have fewer opportunities or the financial resources to shell out for trips that can cost thousands of dollars.

And despite the surge in outdoor activities, not all outdoor recreation companies have prospered during the pandemic. In Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op, a cooperative that sells outdoor gear, was sold to a private U.S. investment firm in September due to the pandemic forcing store closures.

Still, there are long-term signs that this boom will continue. COVID-19 cases are rising again across the U.S., meaning the appetite among students for a return to classrooms next semester is likely to stay flat. Babbott-Bryan doesn’t mind sticking with her outdoors program longer. “It’s really liberating in a lot of ways,” she says. “It’s definitely provided me with more meaning about how I want to live.”

OZYThe New + the Next

Cutting-edge trends, rising stars and big ideas.