Most Area College Enrollments Jump

December 6, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — When the final fall enrollments were tallied, the majority of area colleges saw modest increases in enrollment this year, some whether they wanted to or not.

The greatest change was seen in the 8.9 percent enrollment jump at Baker College of Muskegon.

Since moving six years ago to its current 40-acre campus, Baker has seen its enrollment more than double, from 1,903 to this fall’s 4,433. During each of the past four years, Baker experienced double-digit attendance growth and housing overflow.

“We’ve just been really expanding our market,” said Kathy Jacobson, vice president of admissions.

The Muskegon campus is part of the BakerCollege system, Michigan’s largest private college. Serving more than 30,000 students across the state on 12 campuses and four satellite locations, Baker is now the third largest educational institution in the state, behind the University of Michigan and MichiganStateUniversity

The large-scale expansion of the college’s Muskegon branch, according to Jacobson, can be partially credited to specialized programs in aviation and culinary arts, but more likely attributed to the mission of the Baker system.

“We’re a career-oriented college, not a liberal arts college. More and more students and parents are getting fed up with a liberal arts education that doesn’t lead to employment. College is just too expensive not to be able to leave with some skills in hand that translate to a paying career.

“It is a great social experience for them to go to college,” Jacobson continued, “and there are certainly other skills and training beyond a job — but the main focus should be that when you leave, having spent all that money, that you’re ready to go to work.”

Another benefit of the Baker system, she said, is that at other colleges, a student spends a great deal of time uncertain about a career path, a circumstance that has created the new standard of five- and six-year degrees.

Liberal arts colleges are still in high demand, though.

Despite efforts to curb rising admissions and enrollment, GrandValleyStateUniversity again saw a spike in students. After the school’s first Division II football national championship in 2002, GVSU sustained a 20 percent rise in applicants and adopted a waiting list for the first time in a decade.

In 2003, enrollment from inside of Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties was up 7.4 percent while enrollment from outside Michigan was up 4.8 percent. In response to that landslide of applicants, GVSU raised its admissions standards. The surprising result was an even larger freshman class: 3,408 freshmen compared to last year’s 3,384.

The university as a whole saw a 3.9 percent enrollment increase for a new all-time high of 22,063 students.

CornerstoneUniversity saw a noteworthy jump as well, partly due to the rapid growth of its Professional and Graduate Studies Program, which has experienced a 30 percent increase in enrollment in the past four years.

Of the area’s other colleges, Grand RapidsCommunity College, DavenportUniversity and HopeCollege all saw mild increases.

Two of West Michigan’s oldest colleges, Calvin and Aquinas, suffered losses.

The bulk of Calvin’s drop came from a first-year freshman class of 902, down from 1,042 in 2003. Both numbers still represent the largest incoming freshman classes of any private college in the state.

Tom McWhertor, Calvin’s vice president for enrollment and external relations, said the drop was expected based on applications to the college last spring, but nonetheless it was disappointing.

“We feel we offer a first-class education at an affordable price and with a sound Christian perspective,” he said. “Our challenge now is to communicate both our excellence and our affordability to high school students and their parents.”

McWhertor did note that almost 60 percent of the incoming freshmen had earned top scholarships, and even though the class was smaller, there were more students with high-level GPAs.

AquinasCollege saw its enrollment dip for a third consecutive year.    

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