Why STEM Funders Give to Colleges: A Case Study From Colorado

Hear the name Coors and you don't tend to think of science or math. You think of beer, the ultimate low-tech product. But the Coors family also owns a ceramic company, CoorsTek, which makes some pretty technical products. Recently, CoorsTek and the Coors family made a $26.9 million gift to the Colorado School of Mines, which will go toward a new facility, a $45 million building that will be called the CoorsTek Center for Applied Science and Engineering. The rest of the gift will fund a research fellowship and state-of-the-art equipment for the building, including one of the country’s most advanced electron microscopes.  

The gift, the largest in the school's history, is the culmination of a close relationship between the company and the college that goes back many years. It's also a good case study in how a mix of financial self-interest and institutional ties often motivate corporate STEM giving, especially to local schools. 

CoorsTek and the School of Mines, both located in Golden, Colorado, have a connection that goes back generations. An early 1900s incarnation of the company made heat-resistant porcelain from clay pits right on the border of the school. The family and the company have funded the school for many years, including professorships and a Center for Advanced Ceramics. And current CoorsTek CEO John Coors, great-grandson of brewery founder Adolph Coors, is a School of Mines graduate. 

The gift will no doubt have a big impact on the school, but potentially the company, too. CoorsTek currently employs about 50 alumni of the School of Mines, and John Coors told The Denver Post that he considers it an investment, expecting that more of the university’s graduates with the unique skill sets CoorsTek needs will come to work for the company. The small university has some well-regarded specialties, including steel processing, products research, and advanced ceramics, of particular interest to Coors.   

Corporations have been giving frequent and increasingly large philanthropic gifts to universities, in part as a way to bolster the tech workforce and product development. Oil and gas companies are among the most prominent examples.

Related: University Gets in on North Dakota Fracking Boom

This dynamic plays out nationally, with top corporations seeking to bolster US STEM education overall. But its dividends may be greatest for businesses when they give to local educational institutions that can help them to meet their skilled labor needs in a direct fashion. 

In part, what we're seeing here is a remaking of human capital supply chains. Previously, corporations invested huge resources in training their workers from scratch right out of high school, and many companies still spend vast amounts on training. But now more training is happening in community colleges and universities, which has shifted the costs of skills development onto individuals who, in earlier decades, could have skipped a post-secondary education (and the tuition and debt) and gone straight to work.

This an imperfect system, at least for young people who end up burdened with student loans. But the substantial investments of many companies into STEM education on campuses is one silver lining here. 

Related: Grants for STEM Education

CoorsTek is independent from the Coors Brewing Company (part of the Molson Coors conglomerate), but the companies have been affiliated in various ways throughout their histories, and both come from the same Coors family. In its early days, the company made the brewery’s beer bottles, developed the first aluminum beer cans, and made oven-safe porcelain pottery. But these days, CoorsTek deals in high-tech ceramics used in many applications such as computer chips and body armor.  

The Coors family supports science education through various philanthropic channels, including the Adolph Coors Foundation. The family is also, of course, infamous for funding conservative political causes and founding The Heritage Foundation.