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17 September 2007
JSU Looks to Future with Hopes of Five-digit Enrollment, Possible Doctoral Program Additions, Modern Buildings

By Steve Ivey
Star Staff Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

Jacksonville State University students must visit Bibb Graves Hall for admissions and financial needs. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

JACKSONVILLE — Ashley Marcum grew up with a Gamecock-crazed dad.

They made the trip from their home in Bremen, Ga., and back on many a football Saturday. As the college brochures began arriving in the mail, her father, Larry, was always nearby, whispering in her ear about following his path to Jacksonville State University.

Now, as a freshman, Marcum still is attending those football games. But her beloved Gamecocks might have some new, big-time opponents soon. And now that she’s out of the house, the brochures in the mailbox have been replaced by appeals from Dad’s alma mater for a little help as the campus looks to grow and lure more classmates for his daughter.

“It’s where my father went, so I’m glad to be here, too,” Marcum said. “But it’s not exactly the same place. We see they want to move forward.”

With JSU’s 125th anniversary approaching, officials remain realistic but also optimistic that their campus is ready for a promising future. They’re chasing an enrollment that tops 10,000, a $25 million fundraising goal, modern buildings to teach in and a football program that can compete at college’s highest level.

Magic numbers

From its days with 25 students as the State Normal School in 1883, JSU has blossomed to a 459-acre campus, and officials this week announced this fall’s 9,077-student enrollment — the second-largest in school history.

President Bill Meehan, with more than three decades of experience at the university, has set his sights on a bustling campus with a five-digit enrollment.

“There’s nothing magic about the 10,000 number,” he said, seated in his office flanked by long-range planning maps. “But the fall enrollment number is an important one seen by the public. It gives a different image, and I think it’s something very achievable.”

Aside from the psychological effects, Meehan offered one concrete benefit of higher enrollment.

This year, the Legislature passed a bond issue for K-12 and higher education, to be used for new construction and facilities maintenance. Every public four-year college in the state received a base amount of $1 million and an additional total based on enrollment.

With the state’s sixth-largest enrollment, JSU’s take is about $4.6 million, Gov. Bob Riley’s office estimates. Troy State University, which comes in fifth in total students, expects about $6 million.

JSU has seen previous enrollment booms when the World War II generation returned home with government money for college and again in the 1960s when their kids graduated high school.

Current demographics may stand in the way of more growth.

The number of 18-year-olds earning a high school diploma each year had been holding steady in Alabama. But for the first time, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects that the number of new graduates will decline by about 2 percent in Alabama over the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, Florida expects an 11 percent increase, and Georgia plans for a 23 percent jump.

“I cannot tell you what’s causing that,” Meehan said. “But it’s unfortunate.”

The drive for every available dollar also counts more than it used to. Meehan is quick to note — in interviews and on the video scoreboard at Gamecock football games — that when he first became a biology instructor in the 1970s, the state provided about 54 percent of the university’s budget.

Today it’s about 35 percent.

Meehan calls it a change for the state’s universities from being “state-supported” to “state-assisted.”

He hopes the school can create a campus that is totally accessible to wireless Internet. He also hopes to raise faculty salaries closer to the state and national averages. JSU’s average 2005-06 faculty salary was $56,030, compared with $65,141 in the state and $68,210 at masters universities nationally.

Paying for progress

JSU is examining several ways to make up the difference to pay for things it needs and wants.

The university began the “quiet phase” of courting wealthy private donors for a capital campaign in 2004. JSU originally set a goal of raising $17.5 million and eventually increased the target to $25 million.

Jerry Smith, an Auburn-based consultant who helped JSU establish the campaign, told The Star the university probably could reach a goal of $30 million.

Nationwide, 27 universities have set fundraising goals of at least $1 billion.

Gregory Fitch, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said fundraising and enrollment drives are commonplace in the state.

“I think we have foundations at every institution of higher education,” Fitch said. “They set their direction and coordinate with their school’s board.

“The enrollment numbers depend on their capacity. But increasing opportunities and access are the key elements we talk about. Jax State is right on line.”

At JSU, the main priorities include $7 million for a new music building, $2.5 million to help the College of Education and Professional Studies expand, and about $1.5 million for scholarships.

Meehan said the university has raised more than triple its scholarship goal. “That’s something needed by today’s students more than ever before.”

He noted that a biology book that cost $50 when he bought it as a graduate student in the 1970s now costs twice that.

“Students are spending more for housing, transportation, food,” he said. “It is just more expensive to go to school.”

Earlier this year, the Board of Trustees voted to maintain JSU’s tuition rates for the third straight year. This year, in-state undergraduate students taking four classes — enough to be full-time — will pay $4,056.

(The maximum tuition for State Normal School in 1883 was $3 per month for seniors.)

Meehan said he wasn’t sure how long JSU can hold rates steady.

“When our state appropriation is a double-digit increase, it’s hard to explain to people that’s still not the percentage it used to be,” he said. “I would love to give 7 percent raises to everyone, but you just can’t do that.

“I think raising tuition is something we may have to consider.”

Raising the bar

As the university tries to raise its enrollment, JSU also must balance bringing better students to campus.

The university closed its admissions in the early 1990s and implemented a minimum ACT score of 17 for acceptance.

Nationwide, this year’s graduating high school seniors who took the ACT test averaged a score of 21.2. The average for Alabama’s seniors was 20.3. The average for JSU’s 2006-07 freshman class was 19.5.

Meehan said that threshold also may warrant re-examination. But he also noted that JSU’s mission doesn’t call for tight selectivity.

“It may be time to take a look again soon at where we stand,” he said. “But we have a mission to serve the students of northeast Alabama. That’s the type of institution we are, and it’s important to stick to that.”

The strongest areas for student growth at JSU have been distance learning, which makes up about a fourth of all students, and graduate programs, where enrollment has risen 41 percent since 1999.

Officials hope those numbers favor their effort to create their first doctoral programs, in education and emergency management.

Rebecca Turner, JSU’s vice president for academic and student affairs, said the university has the foundation to add those programs. JSU already certifies more teachers in the state than any other school, and its undergraduate and graduate programs in emergency management already have faculty teaching completely online.

“The things are in place to build upon,” she said. “We constantly hear from our stakeholders in the region this is what they want us to have. And having doctoral degrees raises our status.”

Adding such programs requires approval from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, and Meehan said he knows the doctor of education degree especially would step on the toes of colleagues at the University of Alabama and Auburn University, the only institutions in the state that offer such programs.

But Fitch, of ACHE, said colleges all over the country are broadening their offerings to meet community needs.

Smaller colleges from Florida to South Dakota have begun higher-level programs, especially in nursing and the medical field.

“That upper section of (colleges in) the state is going to see a lot of changes,” he said.

An economic engine

While Meehan attempts to lead his campus, he also has assumed the chairmanship of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce this year.

JSU is already an economic engine for the area. A 2005 study by the school’s own Center for Economic Development put its impact on the Calhoun and Etowah county economies at more than $345 million each year.

Many in the community are hopeful for a strong partnership between JSU and economic development, especially at McClellan.

Pete Conroy, director of JSU’s Environmental Policy and Information Center and a member of the Joint Powers Authority, the board responsible for redeveloping the former fort, said he’d like to see more JSU officials at the table.

Specifically, Conroy and the JPA are pursuing a research park at McClellan to partner with the Department of Defense or the Environmental Protection Agency.

With a new report on the projects due next month, Conroy said it provided a new chance for JSU participation.

“Certainly they’ve been at the table,” he said. “But this will be an opportunity to bring all the partners back together.”

Part of the plan hinges on JSU faculty producing relevant research for the park, which Conroy said he’d like to see increase.

JSU’s Turner said faculty is expected to do research, but the university’s strength is teaching.

“We have the expectation of scholarship,” she said, “but it’s different than a research institution.”

Turner pointed to JSU’s 13 department accreditations — more than any regional university in the state — as the main academic goal. “It’s how we measure our quality.”

Playing for keeps

This summer, the Board of Trustees also began the process of looking at athletic quality for JSU.

They formed an exploratory committee to look into a leap to the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A.

The Gamecocks have played in the Football Championship Subdivision — previously called Division I-AA — since 1995.

Meehan said the jump in division could take several years, but the board wanted a forward-thinking approach should an opportunity arise.

“If you’re going to renovate your stadium already, why not expand it to meet the average of what it would take,” he said.

That would mean nearly doubling Paul Snow Stadium’s capacity of 15,000 and adding about 22 more football scholarships.

JSU has hired Johnny Williams, a former athletic director at Troy, to develop plans for the move.

Troy made the jump in 2001 and ended last season with a win over Rice in the New Orleans Bowl on ESPN2.

The cable outlet also aired the Trojans’ home opener against Oklahoma State on Saturday, the fifth time Troy has appeared on national television since it moved up in division.

“It gives the perception you’re bringing in large amounts of dollars, which is not necessarily accurate,” Meehan said. “It gets you a different stage of exposure. Newspapers have a sports article every day. It’s the way fans, alumni and students relate to your institution.”

Just like Marcum, growing up with JSU. That connection is a big reason she bypassed some of her other options.

“I’m glad to be here,” she said. “It’s an exciting time.”

About Steve Ivey

Steve covers education for The Star.

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