Next fall, students at the University of Wyoming will be able to register for a new course on the cooperative business model developed with support from the Wyoming Rural Electric Association.

Cheyenne-based WREA donated $10,000 to the university’s foundation to help fund and plan the three-credit course that will introduce students to the concept of member-ownership and delve into reasons for co-ops’ formation, their difference from other business structures and their relevance in today’s economic and social climate.

Offered through the university’s agricultural and applied economics department in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the course will take place once a week on the school’s Laramie campus.

“Cooperatives are a vibrant but often overlooked part of Wyoming and the U.S. economy, employing more than 850,000 workers nationally in more than 63,000 establishments across nearly all sectors,” said Benjamin Rashford, head of the agriculture and applied economics department.

Research conducted for NRECA’s Young Adult Member Engagement Initiative shows that co-ops’ local roots and democratic structure appeal to this age group, but the business model is largely unknown. That’s where such a course can help, said Shawn Taylor, executive director of WREA.

“Co-ops award scholarships for local students to attend college, but they may not understand what a cooperative is,” said Taylor. “This course could help them not only learn the concept but also how to use it. My hope is they can come out of this class with an entrepreneurial spirit and bring that home.”

As with all new courses at the university, “The Cooperative Business Model” will be offered as a pilot and then undergo assessment. Poudre Valley REA’s Milton Geiger, a former extension educator at the university, will be the course’s adjunct lecturer. He plans to emphasize project-based work.

“We’ll pull in guest speakers from local co-ops...food producers, rural electrics, worker co-ops… to expose students to the varying forms,” said Geiger, alternative energy administrator at the Fort Collins, Colorado, co-op.

The new course is an outgrowth of discussions between WREA and the University of Wyoming. Adam Schwartz, founder of The Cooperative Way, consulted with them as well. A co-instructor of a similar class at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Schwartz hopes to meet with co-ops in other states about creating this type of course in their local university systems.

Enrollment in Schwartz’s class has grown from seven to 28 students since it began three years ago—an indicator that the co-op concept is catching on among young adults, he said.

“This is a generation of people who’ve seen parents lose their jobs during the economic crisis in 2008 and seen the downsides of working for companies where the main focus is profit,” Schwartz said. “They’re looking for answers and co-ops, which focus first on service to members, can provide a solution. You can work at values-based business that’s meaningful and purposeful and you can make a good living.”

Geiger also has noticed an uptick of interest in co-ops among students at nearby universities, where Poudre Valley REA participates in career days and other events. He noted that the “broader interest in local movements, local foods and local capital” is likely prompting students to ask more questions about co-ops.

University of Wyoming students have already signed up for about half of the course’s 30 spots—a promising sign, said Taylor. “What’s old is new again; the co-op model has been used for over a century and it’s still going strong.”

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