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NOLS Cuts 60 Jobs, Closes Campuses Amid ‘Financial Challenges’

A prolonged funding shortfall led the school's leaders to scale back programming, reducing available courses in many parts of the country.

nols outdoor courseNOLS, which offers outdoor courses, will indefinitely close three campuses; (photo/NOLS)
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One of the country’s most important institutions for outdoor education will lose three locations and several staff. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) announced dozens of layoffs and the closure of three campuses last week after a prolonged budget shortfall.

NOLS president Sandy Colhoun revealed the sobering news on the organization’s website, stating that “financial challenges” forced the decision to scale back operations.

“With a heavy heart, I write to inform you of some significant changes that will be taking place within our school in the coming days,” Colhoun wrote.

The cuts mean that 60 positions, including 42 staff and 18 vacant jobs, will be eliminated or remain unfilled. But the school will also close three of its campuses in fall 2024, including NOLS Pacific Northwest, NOLS Northeast, and NOLS Southwest.

WFA course
NOLS has long been a popular choice for taking Wilderness First Aid (WFA) courses; (photo/NOLS)


“NOLS has long been regarded as a pioneer in outdoor education, providing transformative experiences for students and enthusiasts alike,” Colhoun wrote. “However, like many organizations, it has been impacted by external factors beyond its control, including economic downturns and shifting priorities in the educational landscape.”

Colhoun noted that the campus closures would allow NOLS to focus on its summer field operations in Alaska, Rocky Mountain, Three Peaks Ranch, the Vernal River Base, and Teton Valley. And the fiscal year 2025 cutbacks would help the school “retain and grow the number of summer expedition students and work opportunities for field faculty.”

Educational Programs Hit

A nonprofit school aimed at teaching practical skills for the wilderness, NOLS began in a small cabin in Wyoming in 1965. Since then, it’s become an international source of education for thousands of nascent explorers all over the world.

Benefits of the school’s courses extend far beyond the popular Wilderness First Aid courses offered at many of its campuses. SpaceX astronauts took a 2-week NOLS course in 2020 before venturing into outer space.

nols course
NOLS also offers Expedition Courses, which can last between a week to a year, with destinations from the Rockies to the Himalayas; (photo/NOLS)

The school worked alongside the National Park Service to educate Anderson Cooper, Kristin Wiig, and even mountaineering filmmaker Jimmy Chin about the Leave No Trace program. And in 2013, NOLS spearheaded Expedition Denali, the first all-African American team to attempt the continent’s tallest mountain.

Now, the organization faces steep cuts to its programming.

Training and development programs will be reduced, including expedition leadership seminars, research programs, and instructor course reimbursement for both expeditions and wilderness medicine. Entry-level campus wages have been reduced to $13 per hour, and in-person meetings have been canceled for 2024 and 2025.

NOLS wilderness course
Fewer students have signed up for NOLS courses in recent years, the organization said; (photo/NOLS)

Funding for NOLS comes from a combination of gifts, student tuition, and an endowment. But, according to Colhoun, the school has not seen student levels that it used to. Further, NOLS Communications Director Kelli Lusk told the Cowboy State Daily that a combination of economic trends and NOLS’ “significant investments in technology and marketing” has left it in a running deficit.

“It is important to note that NOLS has a robust $50M endowment and strong financial reserves to weather these storms,” Lusk told the Cowboy State Daily. “Still, we cannot continue to sustain operating losses in the future.”

Given the ballooning popularity of venturing outdoors, it’s important that wilderness schools like NOLS continue to educate the public, the NOLS president said in the announcement.

“The value of a NOLS experience in the field and the classroom is increasingly important in the world today, especially as leadership skills are needed now more than ever,” he wrote.

If you would like to make a financial gift to help support NOLS and its mission of environmental and leadership training, you can do so and learn more about the NOLS Fund.

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