The reasons are varied, but there’s no question student enrollment at Mesa State College is on the rise.
The population grew to 7,185 students in the spring semester this year and the college is bracing for another 10 percent to 15 percent increase by the time the final head count is in for the fall semester.
Over the past five years, enrollment at Mesa State has grown about 25 percent.
The economic downturn often is cited as one reason for increasing college enrollment, particularly during the Great Recession that began in late 2007.
“Is the economy the reason? Part of the answer is ‘no,’” said John Marshall, vice president for student services at Mesa State College.
Marshall said the college attracts more than people who’ve lost jobs or are looking for a career change. The institution has become more of a traditional student campus than it was years ago, he said. Traditional students come straight from high school — as opposed to nontraditional students, who are older.
Traditional students are coming in greater numbers from such states as Arizona, New Mexico and Hawaii. Because they pay higher tuition for attending an out-of-state college, Marshall said economics are probably not driving them to come to the Grand Valley.
One obvious attraction is the appearance of the campus, which has added $150 million in renovations and new buildings since 2005.
Larger athletic facilities and health science classrooms are included in an expanded Maverick Center. A parking garage opened on 12th Street. New dormitories and retail space opened along North Avenue. A new student center and an expanded science center are scheduled to open by the end of the fall semester.
“A lot of the construction is an attraction to parents and traditional students,” Marshall said.
Sue Chalifoux, a Chicago resident escorting two of her children on a campus tour in early August, said she was impressed by the educational opportunities offered at an affordable tuition. “The opportunity for the money is unbelievable.”
Out-of-state students pay more than twice as much as in-state students — about $13,000 and $5,000 for a full year, respectively. Yet, Chalifoux perceived the college to be a bargain.
Chalifoux’s children, Adam and Grace, were on their way to the new college bookstore as they explained that Mesa was one of the options they’re considering. The family was in town to visit relatives and decided to check out Mesa State while they were here.
While traditional students boost enrollment at Mesa State, more older students are attending the college as well.
“We’ve seen a growth in the 25- to 40-year old demographic,” Marshall said. “It is a mixture.”
He said older students are generally more impressed with academic programs than new buildings.
Responding to feedback from the local business community, the college has added construction management and landman- energy management programs and soon will offer graduate degrees in nursing. Such programs can offer a good fit for older students who are more established in the area and more likely to look for work in Western Colorado than their traditional counterparts. Nontraditional students also look for more diverse methods of learning, such as evening and online classes.
By recruiting students from various geographical areas, the college hopes to offer a productive environment that can pay off for everyone in the long run. The college has particularly focused on states experiencing increasing high school graduation rates. Marshall said those are unique areas bucking a national trend of smaller high school graduating classes since 2008. The targeted states include Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.
The result is more than increased college enrollment. There’s also a dynamic in which a student from a small town in Western Colorado might interact and learn from a native of Los Angeles.
Mesa State also uses a computer software system that helps it tailor e-mail messages to the interests of each student. It’s more cost-effective to attract students and retain them than simply to attract them and see them leave the college after a short time, said Rick Taggart, acting executive director of marketing and student recruitment at Mesa State.
The relationship management computer program is something Taggart discussed with the college while he taught there as an adjunct marketing professor a few years ago.
“I was ecstatic about it,” said Taggart, who recently retired as president of Victorinox Swiss Army, a multi-national company that experimented with the relationship program.
Added Marshall: “It’s better than the old fair in a gym and talking to every student who walks by.”
The resulting mix of students provides social and business contacts in various parts of the country as time moves on. A local business might benefit by hiring more skilled employees as the pool of students and graduates comes from a wider geographical base.
Local residents who graduate and move to other cities for work can also help the local economy in future years. They can make monetary donations to the college or offer to volunteer time soliciting contributions from others. Graduates who move out of the area can also become ambassadors, spreading the word about the benefits of a Mesa State education, Taggart said.
The addition of such post-graduate programs as the master’s in business administration degree program also can boost productivity at local businesses. That can be particularly true at a time when many businesses are downsizing to try to stay in the black.
“You have to invest in the group that’s left over,” Taggart said.
Meanwhile, Mesa State College continues to invest in infrastructure and program development at a time when many higher education institutions are struggling to find the resources to commit to such improvements. Growing enrollment helps by increasing the pool of funds that come from tuition and fees, and college officials plan to continue to spread the message about the opportunities available at Mesa State.