LEBANON — You don’t have to go further than the parking lot to notice how fast Cumberland University is growing.
On a recent weekday, almost every spot on campus was taken. Overflow lots at nearby churches were full, too.
“We’re busting at the seams,” Cumberland President Paul Stumb said. “Our classrooms, our parking lots, our dining hall, our dorm rooms. They’re all full.”
It’s a new challenge Stumb seems happy to tackle, and one that suggests his ambitious goals for growing the small institution 31 miles east of Nashville are within reach.
On Monday, the university announced that enrollment had surged by nearly 50 percent since he started as president in the fall of 2015.
This semester’s enrollment of 2,314 students represents an all-time high for the school.
How they did it: Recruiting athletes, DACA recipients and Tennessee Promise students
Stumb said the jump was the result of targeted efforts to entice specific groups of students.
They’ve added new sports like archery, track and men’s volleyball to attract more athletes. They’re working with a nonprofit to recruit more students using Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program for young people who were brought to the country illegally or overstayed their visas as children.
And they have a partnership with Wilson County Schools to offer dual enrollment courses that give high school students an early jump at college credit.
But one of the biggest recruitment tools Cumberland has used is the state’s Tennessee Promise program, which allows young people to get a tuition-free associate’s degree at community colleges.
Cumberland is one of a handful of four-year universities to participate, and it took the extra step of lowering its tuition rate for those students to match the state’s scholarship amount.
“Initially, the Tennessee Promise scared a lot of private schools,” Stumb said. “We decided that it was in our best interest and also in the best interest of the students … for us to support that program.”
The result has been striking.
About 500 Tennessee Promise students are enrolled at Cumberland today, accounting for a large portion of the university’s growth. Now, Stumb said, the focus is on keeping those students at Cumberland for their junior and senior years — after the scholarship ends.
Tennessee Promise students relish the chance to use the scholarship at a four-year school
Cumberland’s atmosphere, including close relationships with professors and a more active campus life, helped set it apart from other options for freshman Tennessee Promise student Sydney Davis.
Davis lives on campus and can hang out with classmates for late-night study sessions and can drop into the dining hall for a pizza in between classes. Those options are harder to come by at community colleges.
“Everyone in my hometown goes to all these community colleges near me,” said Davis, who is from Rhea County in East Tennessee. “I just wanted the four-year university.”
Junior Carli Crutcher, another Tennessee Promise student from Nashville, echoed that sentiment.
“I still wanted that four-year feel, but I didn’t want to be far away from home and I didn’t want to do a community college,” Crutcher said.
The fact that she’s seen enrollment surge during her time there shows more “people are seeing that this school is an option.”
Cumberland, like other local universities, benefits from Nashville’s boom
Of course, Cumberland isn’t the only Middle Tennessee university experiencing explosive growth.
Belmont, Lipscomb and Trevecca Nazarene universities in Nashville have all logged record-breaking enrollment for several years running. And new community college campuses in Williamson and Rutherford counties were at or near capacity as soon as they opened their doors.
Nashville’s status as a boom-town, which has led to population explosions across the region, is certainly contributing to the upward trend.
“There’s no doubt that the independent colleges of Middle Tennessee love the growth of Nashville and are benefiting from that growth as well,” said Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association.
But Pressnell said that the most successful universities still have to fight in an industry that has become increasingly competitive.
Often, he said, they have done that by using an approach similar to Cumberland’s, targeting specific populations outside of their typical profile “instead of just putting all of our eggs in one basket.”
Pressnell said that often includes recruiting from the state’s growing Latino population or adult students with some college and no degree.
At Trevecca, which recently announced enrollment had grown 30 percent since 2014, administrators have put a bigger focus on adult students along with graduate and doctoral programs. Older, “non-traditional students” now make up about 60 percent of the university’s enrollment.
Cumberland president plans for continued growth
Stumb said his admissions team would make recruiting adult students a priority as they look to continue pushing enrollment upward.
Still, rapid growth doesn’t come without its headaches. At Cumberland and elsewhere, it has been accompanied by an infrastructure squeeze.
In Nashville, Belmont has seen enrollment grow from 2,976 in 2000 to 8,080 this fall. In the same time, the university has poured more than $538 million into construction projects that have reshaped the neighborhood.
Stumb is looking toward more construction at Cumberland — a new 200-space parking lot is already in the works — but making do until then has been a challenge.
Some dorm rooms built for two students now house three. And one residence hall lobby doubles as a classroom.
“What makes me nervous and keeps me up at night is figuring out how we’re going to house, how we’re going to feed, how we’re going to park, and how we’re going to provide classroom space for all these students,” Stumb said.
But he did not indicate plans to back down anytime soon.
“We’re not through growing,” he said. “We’re going to surpass 2,300, we’re going to surpass 2,800.”
He expects the university will push past 3,000 students in a few years.
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @tamburintweets.
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