Enrollment up at area's small schools
Local colleges bucking national trend downward

By Megan Boehnke, Knoxville News Sentinel
Published Oct. 21, 2013


Maryville College freshman Morgan Strain was looking for a small school, a liberal arts education and a way out of Alabama.

In a crowded dining hall on the small but scenic campus, Strain said she loves her new school, which allows her to learn in small groups and continue her love of cheerleading.

“I’m Presbyterian, so the school sent me stuff and I came and looked. I wanted to get out of Alabama,” she said with a smile. “They offered me scholarships, and the liberal arts schools in Alabama don’t do that — they aren’t as affordable.”

Strain was one of 349 freshmen at Maryville College this fall — an 11.5 percent increase over last year’s freshman enrollment.

Maryville isn’t the only local private college reporting record enrollment growth. Carson-Newman University, Johnson University and King University all said their student body grew this year, some for several years in a row.

Nationally, enrollment across all colleges and universities appears to be trending downward about 1.8 percent from the previous year, according to fall 2012 enrollment numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The report for fall 2013 figures is not yet available.

Four-year private nonprofit schools make up the only sector of colleges not to decline last year, with a slight 0.5 percent growth.

“Largely, what we’re seeing nationally and even here in Tennessee among public universities is more related to economic trends,” said Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, which represents the nonprofit private schools in the state.

Growth often depends on the strategies of the school and what types of students they serve, he said.

“It’s not about institutional type, but more looking at what overall strategic enrollment plans look like. If you’ve got an urban campus that has a strategy that’s regional, they will tend to continue on a growth trajectory,” Pressnell said. “But those that are more rural they’re more sensitive to what’s happening in economic situation because if you’re focus is on Appalachia, you’re going to be more sensitive to economic trends than if the setting is in the middle of Nashville, or even Knoxville.”

Maryville College is focusing solely on growing its traditional residential students, mostly through encouraging more deserving applicants to complete the process, said Dolph Henry, vice president for enrollment.

The college, like most that are tuition-driven, is always looking to grow its student population. Rather than focusing only on recruiting more students to apply, the school has looked for partially complete applications and followed up to ensure those student submit transcripts, test scores and any other missing information, he said.

Though Maryville’s growth is traditional, other schools have looked to expand through online programs and satellite campuses.

King University, based in Bristol, Tenn., has been rapidly expanding across the state. It has 14 campuses from southwestern Virginia to Nashville, including a Hardin Valley site. The college is still relatively small with 2,587 students across all campuses and online, but it’s Knoxville campus has grown 25 percent over last year, said Kristi Reynolds, regional director of enrollment management.

The Knoxville campus offers degree programs in criminal justice, nursing, communication, psychology and others.

“It’s part of the strategy to try to meet the needs of different students in different ways with the same academic end and the same product at the end of the day,” said Reynolds. “It really took off in 2008 when we started offering more programs for the adult learners, but probably the strategy really started when we began recognizing the needs of the community, closer to 2005.”

Johnson University and Carson-Newman University — Christian schools that have both dropped “College” from their name in favor of “University” in the past two years — have managed to grow traditional programs while also expanding online offerings.

Carson-Newman Provost Kina Mallard said she would call the school “both/and university.”

“We’re both liberal arts and innovative, we’re both a traditional residential liberal arts school, and we have satellite campuses,” Mallard said. “I think every school has to look at its mission, look at its resources and decide what they can do next.”

For Carson-Newman, which has seen a 6 percent growth in its freshman class and a 14 percent uptick in transfer students this year, that means launching a partnership with K-12 Teacher’s Alliance, a teacher support organization that works with private and public institutions, to offer a master’s program in Chattanooga and the Tri-Cities area, she said.

“About 90 percent of our operating budget comes from enrollment,” she said. “So we’re always trying to increase our enrollment and there’s a lot of competition, so it’s increasingly harder to do that.”

Johnson University is also seeing growth largely because of a broadening of programs both on campuses and online, officials said. The school had roughly 7 percent growth among its traditional students and 8.2 percent overall, not including a “sister” campus it acquired last year in Kissimmee, Fla. There are about 950 students on the Knoxville campus, said Tim Wingfield, dean of enrollment services.

“For 110 years of our probably 120 years here, we’ve been a very traditional Bible college with congregational ministry as the primary degree program,” Wingfield said. “But over the years we have added new programs, and that has helped us grow. We’ve always had distance learning courses all the way back to 1893 where go back to mail, then videocassette tapes. But now we’ve expanded that to degree options — associates, bachelors, masters or Ph.D., and it’s all accredited.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester is 1,168.