COLUMBIA — Mention the words "college" and "Columbia" together in much of the state, and chances are one place comes to mind: MU, a public flagship behemoth where enrollment approaches 35,000 and generations of Missourians continue to send their kids and grandkids.
Seven blocks away, a former Christian women's college now named after its hometown is making its own mark in higher education — and emerging from MU's sizable shadow.
Columbia College has earned a national reputation for its ample online degree programs, flexible offerings for part-time students, an expanded physical footprint, athletics success and steady growth fueled by satellite campuses on 18 U.S. military bases — from a U.S. Coast Guard station in northern California to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The renaissance has been led by President Gerald Brouder, who came to campus 18 years ago after rising through the administrative ranks at MU, where he began as an assistant professor of nursing and was later provost, deputy chancellor and interim chancellor. The 70-year-old grandfather of five plans to retire this summer.
"When I got here, I had a million-dollar line of credit from one of the local banks," he said. "And I used it."
By nearly any measure, the school that converted from a two-year women's college in 1970 into a four-year coed campus is awash in success.
Columbia College enrolled more than 11,000 students at its nationwide campuses last year, an increase of more than 100 percent over the previous decade. An additional 4,000 are enrolled online, a program that began in 2000.
The school has bought up dozens of buildings in Columbia to accommodate growth at its day and evening campuses, which serve both traditional undergraduates and working adults.
The men's basketball team was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for most of the 2012-13 season before losing in the NAIA quarterfinals. The Cougar athletics department added five new sports this year, doubling the size of its program while adding more opportunities for female athletes.
On the financial side, an endowment that stood at just $2.5 million when Brouder arrived is now worth 40 times that amount. Revenue for the 2012 fiscal year exceeded $105 million, a $30 million increase in just three years.
The school's success has made it a national model for institutions looking to "find the right blend between the liberal arts and professional programs," said Richard Ekman, president of the Washington-based Council of Independent Colleges.
"He has just accomplished amazing things for the college," Ekman said of Brouder. "You see many, many other colleges trying to emulate that blend. He's provided a model for lots of other institutions."
Columbia College also offers a handful of master's degrees in teaching, educational leadership, business administration and criminal justice, targeting working adults. Nearly 30 prospective grad students attended a recent open house for the two education programs, a mix of experienced teachers looking for a salary boost and second-career types seeking a change in the new economy.
Julie Cupp, who markets assisted-living plans in Columbia, is mulling a return to school more than 20 years after earning her bachelor's degree in Minnesota following a shorter stint at Columbia College. She's comfortable with the traditional classroom model — "in seat" learning, in Columbia College parlance — but is intrigued by the online program's self-paced approach and its eight-week courses.
"I don't want to continue to go down the sales track, but I don't want to waste all those years of experience," she said.
Last week, school officials received welcome news from Washington when Congress restored cuts to military tuition assistance after the Marine Corps, Army and Coast Guard, but not the U.S. Navy, suspended a program that pays as much as $4,500 for active duty troops.
Columbia College had announced plans to defer tuition charges for students affected by those cuts starting with the term that begins Monday.
With Brouder's departure looming, the school has named Terry Smith, an executive vice president and academic affairs dean, as Brouder's interim replacement for a year while a search committee seeks a permanent successor. A new $19 million, 53,000-square-foot science building will be named after Brouder and his wife, Bonnie.
Ron Bunn, a former MU provost, said he's not surprised that his one-time deputy carved out an accomplished career as a private college leader.
"He's pretty level-headed. He doesn't act impulsively," Bunn said. "He listens very carefully to those whose advise him. And he exercises pretty good judgment when he has to make a decision."