By Jeff Keeling
Efforts to recruit more out-of-state students to East Tennessee State University appear to have largely mitigated in-state enrollment declines resulting from the new Tennessee Promise program, ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland told reporters Friday.
As some of an estimated 14,700 students and 2,500 employees began returning to campus for the fall semester, Noland also addressed pending construction projects that will create what he called “a physical transformation on this campus both in the classroom setting as well as in the auxiliary space.” He also covered budget changes, including salary increases, and touched on a partnership with Tennessee Tech University that should make certain engineering degrees available at ETSU starting next fall.
“Our in-state enrollment is down but our out-of-state enrollment is up pretty substantially, particularly in those areas that we targeted with the George L. Carter scholarships,” Noland said. That scholarship initiative, launched earlier this year, puts tuition for academically qualified out-of-state students from some nearby states on par with in-state tuition.
That offering is largely responsible for an estimated increase of a couple hundred out-of-state freshmen this year, offsetting a decrease of around 300 in-state freshmen. The in-state drop was anticipated with the advent of Tennessee Promise, which essentially makes two years of community college tuition-free for freshmen just out of high school.
While enrollment remained somewhat “fluid” Friday, Noland said it looked to be down about 100 overall from last year. The school had built its budget for a decrease of up to 200 students. Likely due to the increase in out-of-state students, on-campus housing is at 97 percent occupancy, Noland said. The recruitment of high-performing students from counties bordering Tennessee – and from students within a 250-mile radius of the state through the new Sidney Gilbreath scholarship – may also have contributed to a slightly changed academic profile, with the average incoming freshman’s grade point average one-tenth of a point higher than last year. The enrollment numbers should allow ETSU to complete the upcoming year with a balanced budget – the first in a number of years – that Noland said is a result of solid funding from the state coupled with the precursors of a new budgeting system at ETSU. The new budget process won’t be fully implemented for a year or so, but Noland said various departments cut more than 6 percent from the base budget over the previous 18 months.
“It was that hard work on the part of our faculty and staff, coupled with a number of other things, that put us in the position that we’re in,” Noland said. “The work here has not been easy, but we’re in very solid shape.”
That has allowed ETSU to move further toward a “salary equity” plan that it introduced a couple of years ago, and that aims to bring its average faculty and staff salaries closer in line with peer institutions.
As for the campus’s physical transformation, Noland spoke of groundbreakings this coming school year for a new fine and performing arts center, a new football stadium, and a new data center.
Also, thanks to a Tennessee Board of Regents-approved, $290 student fee that contributed to ETSU having the highest overall percentage cost increase of all TBR schools this year, the Culp Center will begin undergoing a $40.5 million renovation within the next couple of years.
The Culp Center fee helped put ETSU’s overall annual fees at $8,153. That total is 6.3 percent higher than last year’s $7,667 and puts ETSU second-highest among the six regents universities.
Noland had a positive report on an ongoing effort to bring a shared engineering degree to ETSU, and shared doctoral nursing degrees to Tech. He said summer meetings with Tech and with TBR Chancellor John Morgan’s office ended with TBR asking ETSU to get its final engineering proposal before the board in December. The engineering program could start by next fall, with the nursing programs starting in fall 2017, Noland said.
The partnership is an outgrowth of the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 and – according to Noland – the state’s first example of Section 1 Part 1 Subpart C of the act, which calls for “using institutional mission differentiation to realize statewide efficiencies through institutional collaboration and minimized redundancy in degree offerings, instructional locations and competitive research.”
Students in the joint degree programs would carry degrees with both institutions’ names on them, and ETSU engineering students would receive some instruction from Tech faculty, but usually without having to leave Johnson City.
“You’ll see us begin the process of advertising for faculty, recruiting students – but we were strongly urged by the chancellor, and I can’t commend the chancellor enough for his leadership on this – he directed us to have a proposal before the board in December that puts in front of the Higher Education Commission in January, and we are moving forward with that partnership.”