COLUMBIA — The 111 new students represent "phenomenal growth" for the college, said Terry Smith, executive vice president and dean for academic affairs and professor of political science at Columbia College.
"We have an average of 35-40 new students a year over the last eight years or so," Smith said. "This is triple the growth that we've seen recently."
The evening campus has also seen growth, with enrollment up to 1,279 undergraduates from 1,260 last year.
"The evening program had been declining slightly because of the popularity of online," Smith said. "So the fact that we've grown - that we've turned a corner on that - is a good sign."
Smith says retention is also up, recruiting was successful and the reputation of the school has grown. But the economy is also encouraging people to go to school.
"Historically, that has been the case for decades," Smith said. "There is an inverse relation between the health of the economy and the number of students going back to school. Especially adults who go back to school to upgrade skills and get an education with the prospect that that will make them more employable."
Director of Admissions John Wilkerson said he's seen the same trend among adult learners. "When economic times are hard or not ideal, it creates a question or plants a seed in the adult learner's mind that maybe it's time" to go back to school, he said.
Columbia College is accommodating the day campus growth with new apartments on Seventh Street. This year, the school bought the Cougar Village property, which they have rented over the last few years.
"We need more housing in the future, right now we don't know what that's going to look like," Smith said. "We'll probably need another 80 beds."
New faculty in the English, biology and mathematics departments have been hired and class sections added to accommodate the students, Smith said. Class sizes remain the same.
Adult learners shift to online classes
Columbia College has 33 campuses in addition to the Columbia campus, as well as an extensive online program, all of which have seen steady, continued undergraduate growth over the years.
"Our online program, which is in its eighth year, has been our largest-growing component," said Mike Randerson, vice president for adult higher education. "We experience about 17 percent growth in our total online enrollments. Depending on the session, we've been hitting 17-20 percent growth in online."
The U.S. campuses and the college's Guantanamo Bay campus combined have 7,746 undergraduate students taking online courses in the early fall session, which lasts eight weeks.
The online enrollment figures continue to grow as adult learners choose online programs over the traditional classroom setting because it's more convenient.
"Our seat classes are declining and have been declining over these eight years. We're getting more students taking more coursework with the college than ever before," Randerson said. "There is a migration where the preference now is to online coursework."
"I'm thinking particularly about our majority student - a woman, about 31-33 years of age, has children and she does most of her coursework online Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays after the kids go to bed," Randerson said. "They don't have to pay babysitters. They don't have to pay for gas. Online coursework meets the needs of the 21st century American adult who is seeking education."
But he said the economy and higher gas prices have not had an effect on the online program enrollment numbers.
"I would say that our online program has had a steady growth - I don't think we've seen a spike in it," Randerson said. "We thought we might, it seems to make sense."