Saving Money on a Marine Science Degree... In the Colorado High Desert

A community college in the landlocked state of Colorado, sitting nearly 700 miles from the nearest coastline, might not seem the most obvious choice if you want to get a marine science degree. However, according to Dr. Mario Sullivan, Instructor of Oceanography at Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC), the ocean is much closer to the college’s campus than you might imagine. You just need to know where to look. 

“The lack of an obvious ocean on our doorstep is a fair point and it’s something that everyone questions,” says Sullivan. “When people bring this up, I like to point out that Northwestern Colorado, along with most of the Western United States, was actually underneath a sea during the Cretaceous Period, about 100 million years ago. As a result of the transgression and regression of that interior seaway, we can walk right outside of our classrooms and look at marine sediments. Of course, they are ancient and they are fossilized but we can literally see a beach or an old river delta. So a lot of those processes that we talk about in class, we can observe — at least from a historical standpoint — right outside of our door.”

Sullivan also shares a useful analogy to help demonstrate that a lot of ocean science, like many other branches of science, can be studied successfully a long way from the actual primary source.

“There are many scientists looking up at the stars in distant galaxies who will never go into outer space,” says Sullivan. “It’s exactly the same in ocean science. If you are a physicist working on oceanic and atmospheric interactions, you might be using satellite telemetry data versus actually going to the ocean, and you'd still be publishing papers and doing good science. In this field, you could be a chemist, a biologist, an engineer who builds the gadgetry that we use — or even work in any number of other scientific fields — and still be under that umbrella of ocean science regardless of your geographic proximity to an ocean.”

An Introduction to Ocean Science

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CNCC offers a two-year Associate of Science in Marine Science and Oceanography (AS) degree program which enables students

 to transfer into the third year of a four-year degree program at a coastal school. CNCC currently has transfer agreements with the University of Hawaii (Hilo and Manoa), the University of California Humboldt, and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

“As long as they pick a school that we have a transfer agreement with, it is a clean transfer,” says Sullivan. “Students transferring from CNCC after the second year will have exactly the same advantages as any other student in the third year of their chosen program.”

According to Sullivan, CNCC’s Marine Science and Oceanography program is designed to equip students with skills at an introductory level, preparing them for their next steps in their education regardless of what specific path they take.

“I have a very practical philosophy,” says Sullivan. “There are certain things we have to teach mandated by the state and the Higher Learning Commission. Of those things that we have to teach, I always try to distill it down to the most practical level so students understand why they are learning this and how they might have to use it someday.”

Sullivan explains how he looks back to his own experiences to ensure his teaching is always relevant to his students.

“Whether you are a mechanical engineer or a climate scientist, you've got to take physics,” says Sullivan. “It’s all about heat transfer and the laws of thermodynamics and you've got to have a handle on those, regardless. Even as somebody with a terminal degree in the field, I am still constantly learning things and connecting big picture thoughts that I may not have had without exposure to various experiences in my career. So when I teach algebra-based physics, I try to find connections in things that I missed in my undergraduate education. When I find those connections, I think, ‘Wow — I really need to make sure our students connect this dot.’” Sullivan believes that if students leave CNCC with that connect-the-dots perspective, it will benefit them regardless of the actual field they choose to pursue later on.

A First-Class Education — And a Major Cost Savings

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According to Sullivan, students who complete their first two years in the Marine Science and Oceanography program at CNCC before

 transferring to a coastal school can benefit from significant cost savings on their education when compared to going straight into a four-year degree program.

“Even if a student chooses to stay in-state, the cost savings over the two-year period totals up to be about $25,000,” says Sullivan. “Tuition rates at even the smaller, in-state institutions offering four-year programs tend to be two or three times higher than CNCC’s tuition fees. If a student were to start out in a coastal four-year program, especially outside of our transfer system, it would cost even more.”

Sullivan adds that there are also several institutional scholarships as well as other financial aid options available to help students fund their education at CNCC.

While CNCC is a more cost-effective option, that doesn’t mean students are missing out on educational opportunities afforded to their peers in four-year institutions.

“There's incredible value here and they're not missing anything just because they are coming to a community college in a rural area at a ‘discount’ price,” says Sullivan. “It doesn't mean they are getting a discounted education. Credit hour by credit hour our students are as prepared after their two years here as they would be at a big four-year program.”

Big on Experience, Small on Class Size

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Sullivan believes the high quality of education offered at CNCC starts with the experience and expertise of the college’s faculty.  

“Obviously all of our faculty are vetted and highly competent to teach within their subject area,” says Sullivan. “But beyond that, most of our science faculty have Ph.D.s or have all but completed their Ph.D.s. Those with master’s degrees have served in the trenches. They've done their field or lab work and many of them continue to be academically active in the field as much, or even more so, than you would find in a four-year program.”

The value of CNCC’s Marine Science and Oceanography program is further enhanced by small class sizes (typically less than 30 students) which allow for a more personal teaching experience when compared to larger institutions.

“In my own experience of looking at programs, I would seek out small class sizes,” says Sullivan. “I would at least want to know what the average introductory class size would be. How much individual attention does the average undergraduate get? I remember taking general physics and general chemistry as an undergraduate in a lecture hall with 200 other very confused people. This doesn’t happen at CNCC.”

There IS Water Involved: Learning to Dive

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Despite being many miles from the ocean, there are many opportunities to get wet in the Marine Science and Oceanography

 program.  Sullivan is particularly proud of the scuba diving instruction available at CNCC which is all taught in-house, with students typically achieving their scuba diving certification in the first semester of the program.

“We don't farm out our scuba diving instruction to a dive shop,” says Sullivan. “We do all of our scuba certifications in-house. It’s actually our chemistry professor who is the scuba diving instructor. Our students get their open water certification at a place called Homestead Crater in Utah.” The crater is the only warm scuba diving destination in the continental U.S. “It’s a hot spring but there is an opening to the crater which qualifies it as open water. It’s about 60 ft. deep, so we can get our deep dive in there.” 

After students have their open water certification, they are qualified as scuba divers and can join a number of ancillary dives that take place in local and regional reservoirs. They also can go for their advanced certification. According to Sullivan, the highlight of the program for many students is a week-long trip to Florida, where they often get their first experience of ocean diving.

“We typically do two full days of scuba diving in Florida,” says Sullivan. “We hit various state parks, we get kayaks, we go out and sample seagrass beds, we do water quality, and we do a little bit with marine sediments. Of course, there is a day for fish ID and what we call hook and line sampling. We get out and actually get our hands on fish; we measure them and identify them, count them, make some inferences about their diets and write up our findings at the end. For the students we take down there, this is usually their first experience of scuba diving in the ocean — so that's a big deal.”  

No Such Thing as a Typical Ocean Science Student

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CNCC attracts a diverse range of students in the Marine Science and Oceanography degree program.

“There really isn't a typical student in the program and that’s what I think makes it really cool,” says Sullivan. “You might have somebody who wants to go save the planet, and you might have somebody who wants to go and work for a big fossil fuel company — and they all have to get along. We recognize throughout our coursework that a lot of these issues we deal with are complex but we're all human beings and we've got to try and figure this out the best we can.”

Sullivan believes if there is any commonality among his students, it’s that they have an innate curiosity about the world about them.

“Even if it’s not natural for them to trudge through the snow with me to look for this and that in the mud, they'll put up with it and they'll enjoy it because they understand that's a part of the process,” says Sullivan. “It’s one of the things you've got to do to get further down the road. They are curious and they want to know more.”

This can-do attitude helps students prepare for the rigors of working in what can be a demanding profession.

“When we’re on the coast in Florida, I tell my students if they are really going to do this as a career, it’s unlikely that they will be working on beautiful coral reefs,” says Sullivan. “You're more likely to be in the middle of the ocean on a research vessel, in rough seas, trying to find some weird deep-sea microscopic thing that nobody knows about yet. It’s not going to be glamorous but you’ll be at the cutting-edge of the field.”

Career Opportunities in Marine Biology and ScienceMarine Bio

Competition for jobs in marine science and oceanography is intense.  Sullivan believes that it is always better to transfer into a four-year program after completing the first two years at CNCC because that increases your potential career options.

Marine scientists are employed by a wide range of organizations including governmental departments, regulatory agencies, research and academic institutes, commercial enterprises in the shipping, fishing, and oil and gas industries, and even in military and defense organizations. 

The vast majority of these jobs require a bachelor's degree at entry-level or a master's degree for more senior roles. Wages in the sector will vary dramatically depending on the area of specialty the scientist works in and the specific employer, although typically someone working in the shipping, energy, food or pharmaceutical industries can expect to earn a much higher salary than those in public sector jobs.

However, there are opportunities available to students who don’t want to continue with their education following the completion of their AS degree.

“I recently had one student who really didn’t want to transfer through to a four-year program and came to me looking for advice,” says Sullivan. “We looked together at the various options on Jobs.com and Monster.com and found a number of positions for aquarists and zoologists. One job that stuck out was at the Golden Nuggets casino in Las Vegas. They were hiring somebody to take care of their giant aquarium. They were willing to pay a person a pretty good wage to scuba dive in their aquarium, do water quality tests and make sure the animals were fed and healthy. With a little bit of experience and an associate of science degree, that would be a pretty sweet gig!”

Learn More

To learn more about the Associate of Science in Marine Science and Oceanography degree at CNCC or to speak with a member of our faculty about enrolling in the program, please visit the program page on our website.

Published September 17, 2020