Suitcase U

Midstate high school students are increasingly looking to UT-Chattanooga as their choice for an affordable, in-state college. Likewise, students from East and West Tennessee are taking a closer look at MTSU.

And it’s not a simple coincidence.

Middle Tennessee State University and The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have been on missions to recruit students from each other’s backyard for years.

Pulling students from the other’s traditional base has meant higher retention rates and more “best fit” students, defined as those with higher high school grade point averages and ACT scores seeking specific programs. That, theoretically, raises the value of the programs and the education.

Non-regional students also are less likely to go home on weekends, helping to create more of that “college feel” that larger universities have and schools like MTSU and UTC covet.

Dr. Debra Sells, MTSU’s vice president for student affairs and vice provost for academic and enrollment services, says the school is seriously upping its efforts to get students from across the state by nearly doubling its staff.

“We’ve added a number of new recruiting staff positions that will nearly double what we have had in the past to be able to help us focus on the east and west sides of the state,” Sells says. “However, our bread-and-butter students still continue to come from Middle Tennessee.”

A campus with less of a party atmosphere than UT Knoxville, which was No. 8 on Playboy magazine’s list of top party schools for 2011, is precisely what some incoming students want. MTSU has 26,000 undergraduate students, more than UT-Knoxville, but still feels like a small school. UT Knoxville, with its reputation for being “overwhelming,” can certainly be daunting to some. MTSU and UTC appear to fit right in the middle.

MTSU’s new 197,180-square-foot Student Union, under construction west of the school’s “high-rise” women’s dorms, will be the school’s new focal point with an amphitheater, adjacent lawns.

“Every campus has a culture. Some students want that big, huge, SEC athletic experience,” says Chuck Cantrell, UTC’s associate vice chancellor for communications and marketing. “There are other students who look at that size of a campus and think, ‘Wow, I think I would feel lost.’ So, they look for a smaller campus. At almost 12,000, we are considered a big mid-size university.”

Though both schools also recruit in Memphis, Cantrell adds that UTC recruits heavily in Nashville and surrounding areas because of the population growth in the region.

“As that area grows, frankly it’s just more fertile ground for recruitment,” Cantrell says.

Tuition rates for both schools are comparable ($219 per in-state semester hour at MTSU, $225 at UTC), both lower than UT-Knoxville’s rate of $303. Housing ranges from $1,796 to $4,844 a semester at MTSU, $1,680 to $3,575 at UTC.

Allie Bateman, a student counselor at Hillsboro High, says she is hearing good things from her students about both schools.

“The sense I get about MTSU is that it’s a school that is up and coming, and the students know that,” Bateman says. “They have a lot of friends there, and it seems like a good place to be in that they hear positive things about MTSU.”

However, Bateman says, UTC seems to come up more and more in her conversations with students. The rates of Middle Tennessee students going to UTC have risen considerably in the last decade, particularly from Brentwood and Franklin.

“From what I’ve heard, UTC is kind of a diamond in the rough,” Bateman says. “It’s not one that people considered as much before, but is a good medium-sized school that a lot of my students are applying to because they want somewhere that’s kind of in the middle and one that is fairly close to home, but not so close that they are right next door. And we’ve heard that it has a lot of good programs.”

Kirksey Old Main, once the center of campus and the university’s iconic image, is now less prominent as the campus center pushes west.

— Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

MTSU’s retention rate (students who return after freshman year) has been climbing for a few years, up from 79 percent in 2006 to 82 percent in 2010, the most recent data available. UTC’s retention rate for 2011 was 68 percent, but also has been steadily climbing, according to the school.

UTC’s out-of-area students come largely for its business school and engineering and nursing programs. MTSU’s out-of-area students come primarily for recording industry, aerospace and equine science programs. MTSU also scores high marks for its mass communications program.

In 2006, MTSU undertook an eight-month, $60,000 audit funded by the university to help guide the school’s growth. While the audit found many positives, it also found the school needed a little “sizzle in the steak,” referring to the sense of cohesiveness schools have when the majority of students don’t commute. Some believe the campus becomes a “ghost town” on weekends.

MTSU took that study to heart with plans to open a 197,180-square-foot student union this fall. The three-story facility and grounds will be a place for community and recreation with an amphitheater and adjacent lawns, a staple of the college “hang.”

“It will really become a focal point for activities for our students. Think of your own home,” Sells says. “There’s a formal living room, and then there’s a family room, and this is intended to be the family room. It’s going to have more impact on the college experience than anything we’ve done here.”

Cantrell says that UTC is right in the pocket of where it wants to be with regards to size.

“We are comfortable in terms of the size of our student population and our campus, but we are big enough to be comprehensive in nature,” he says. “We offer a variety of academic programs that most students are looking for. We have the student life, we have the housing, we have the athletics and we just are fortunate enough to be in a really cool, happening city.”

Freshman class profiles

MTSU

Average high school GPA: 3.23

Average ACT Score: 22

Freshman retention: 82%

UT Chattanooga

Average High School GPA: 3.36

Average ACT Score: 22.9

Freshman Retention: 68%

Sources: MTSU, UTC

If UTC has a built-in ace in attracting students from across the state – Chattanooga consistently ranks on Forbes Best Places to Live – then so does MTSU. With Nashville in MTSU’s backyard, the school can claim access to a growing city with a high level of job potential and high marks for livability.

Also in the plans for MTSU is a “one-stop-shopping” student services center so that students won’t have to travel across campus to get enrollment paperwork completed. That’s a good thing for an 800-acre campus. A much-anticipated sciences building also is in the plans and awaiting funding, Sells adds.

MTSU has not needed to add any dorm space, Sells says, because private housing adjacent to campus is abundant and affordable.

“We have literally thousands of our students living within a square mile or so, and they essentially become an extension of our on-campus student population,” Sells says. “They have served to enlarge the edges of our campus.”

Nashvillian Ashley Rine, a marketing major at UTC, applied to MTSU but did not follow up. She wanted to be close to her parents, but not too close. She also didn’t think Murfreesboro had a whole lot to do as compared with Chattanooga.

“UTC has the feeling of a college, and it’s growing every year so it feels a lot bigger,” Rine says. “I know that especially when I was on campus, there was always something to do at UTC. They always had stuff planned. There’s a wide variety of different students, and everyone seemed to fit somewhere.”

Rine’s sister, Jennifer Rine, who started her college career at LSU, transferred to MTSU to finish. She also wanted to be near her boyfriend, who lives in Murfreesboro. The switch was a bit of a shock to Rine who will graduate this year.

“I miss the football games and things like that,” Jennifer says. “A lot of the people here are older, especially in my [accounting] classes. There’s a lot of people with jobs who are coming back. I go to one building, and don’t really get involved in anything. I guess most of the kids are from out of town and go home.”

One of the students Rine might be referring to is MTSU undergrad Kelly Gonzales. For Gonzales, 26, who has a fulltime job and children, flexibility and personal attention are critical. However, she is adamant that MTSU is not just for “older people” or working adults. Gonzales is on a track to a master’s degree in psychology, a track she wasn’t even aware of without the help of her department chair.

“I am actually the oldest person in all of my classes, and I take upper-level classes,” Gonzales says. “It’s as hip a school as any; what they offer is personal attention and a lot of flexibility.

“People party, but it’s not a party school, and I don’t want one. I’m serious about my education, and I don’t need or want any distractions. I would never have found this particular path without the help of my advisors.”

UT Chattanooga began its own mission of out-of-region recruiting about 15 years ago with decent results, Cantrell says.

“We have seen our freshman profile increase year after year,” Cantrell says. “We had a record freshman class this year. We how have four doctoral degrees. We are on a progressive growth pattern, and part of that includes more students.”

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