Ecotech Institute represents an emerging facet of America’s educational system: a private institution that provides focused training for high school graduates. Ecotech is the only school in the United States that offers an AA degree in renewable energy resources. About 400 students are enrolled in the Aurora campus, which opened five years ago in a renovated warehouse facility along metropolitan Denver’s interstate loop.
Ecotech students are different from traditional college students. The average age is between 30 and 35, many have full time jobs, and more than a quarter are veterans who use their educational benefits to become trained as power utility technicians, solar specialists, wind system installers, or obtain business degrees with a sustainability focus. Christopher Gorrie, Campus President, sees a demographic shift toward younger students as more people seek training related to specific employment over traditional liberal arts.
Ecotech offers degrees accredited by ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools) but maintains close partnerships with renewable energy businesses. Several local companies have representatives on Ecotech’s advisory board, and the curriculum is designed to make students job-ready for the sustainable energy industry.
The school is highly structured both in terms of class work and student expectations. “Part of the curriculum is to bolster a level of professional behavior among our students. That is part of why veterans succeed here. They are good students, have benefits so they don’t have to work full time while in school, and have a level of discipline that enables them to succeed.” It is possible to complete an Ecotcech degree in as little as 18 months; 80% of students earn their AA within two years.
Chris feels that traditional colleges and schools like Ecotech operate on unequal fields. “Students are admitted if they have a high school diploma and specific score on the Wonderlic Test. We have to maintain high academic standards, but are also evaluated on attendance, retention, and job placement. Our students are non-traditional in every sense of the word. They support themselves and are skills-focused. But outside jobs, families and emergencies create potential pitfalls to completing our program. It is very expensive to live in Denver; money is an issue for all of our students.”
Chris acknowledges that there have been some “bad apples’ in for-profit education that have tainted the entire basket. However, he sees President Obama’s initiatives to make two years of post-high school education available to more as a positive thing.
Ecotech has the capacity to accommodate up to 800 students at their Aurora campus. At one time they considered expanding to other cities. However, Ecotech has acquired Kaplan Higher Education, so expansion will take a different form: adding Ecotech’s focus on sustainability to existing Kaplan locations in twenty-eight other cities.
How will we live tomorrow?
“The whole world’s economy is a fossil-fueled economy. Not just our energy for transport, but the chair I’m sitting in and the bottle I’m drinking from. These are finite resources. We need to build a new infrastructure for renewable energy. That will require an educated workforce. Ecotech is part of that solution. Not all – it will take PhD’s and scientists as well as technicians.
“It took over a century to build our power grid. It will be a similar process to build a smart grid.
“I don’t see it as a choice. The sooner we do it the easier and cleaner it will be for all.”