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Commuter Colleges Go Residential, Gain Enrollment


The neighborhood around Georgia State University was for years a maze of boarded up storefronts, aging buildings and parking lots that emptied at the close of each day.

But the downtown Atlanta campus is shedding its sleepy commuter school image thanks to plush new dorms, gleaming classroom buildings, Greek life and, yes, even football.

Georgia State and other former night schools across the country are transforming into more traditional college campuses to boost enrollment and gain prestige. And each is creating a thriving community that spills over into surrounding neighborhoods, drawing restaurants and retail into once empty streets.

“Students say it makes it a ‘real university,’” Georgia State President Carl Patton said while sitting in the campus’ airy student center. “What they mean is, ‘You have sports, you have an honors program, you have fraternities and sororities, you have freshman housing, you have places to eat on campus and you have a theater to go to.’”

The change is putting universities once thought to be only for working adults on the radar of newly minted high school graduates looking for the college experience in a big city. With brand new dorms and long lists of student activities, the campuses are able to draw from a much broader pool of students who come from across the globe.

“It gives students a sense of community and belonging,” said Claire Van Ummersen, a vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education. “That’s very different from if everyone arrives, handles whatever course load they have that day and then leaves the campus.”

At Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the campus has blossomed since the 1980s with about 40 new buildings including a brand new library and a $50 million university center and rapid growth in full-time undergraduate students. The third largest university in the state, the campus has built student apartments along the city’s River Walk and a monorail.

For sophomore Cora Griffin, who grew up in a small Indiana farming town, living on the busy IUPUI campus in the middle of a big city was a welcome change of pace.

“I love being able to walk every day to class and walk downtown and have the opportunities I definitely didn’t have,” said the 19-year-old from Galveston, Ind. “With a commuter campus, you have to worry about traffic. I really never have to think about it, which makes it wonderful.”

Temple University in North Philadelphia has nearly 10,000 students living on or near campus, more than double what it was in 2002. The growing campus population spurred renewal in the decaying neighborhood and brought in an $80 million complex with student housing, a movie theater and a shopping center.

The campus has had dorms at least since the 1980s, but the university was dominated by commuter students until this decade.

“The perception has really improved,” said Temple spokesman Hillel Hoffmann. “More and more students are choosing Temple because of the urban location.”

At the University of Cincinnati, the campus has loaned about $100 million to surrounding neighborhoods to replace dilapidated houses and stores with modern apartment buildings and retail space. The new projects have added 1,200 student beds, which means the library and student center have had to expand hours to serve the swell of students on campus before and after classes each day, university spokesman Greg Hand said.

Students say the facelift has helped create an inviting campus.

“The nicer it looks, the better people’s attitudes are and the more they want to stay on campus. It creates that sense of community and place,” said Sean Lee, 21, a senior.

The Georgia State campus is in the middle of a $1 billion expansion, including a $250 million complex for its science programs and the campus’ first housing for fraternities and sororities. Last fall, the campus opened a 2,000-bed dorm complex, and a 300-bed residence hall reserved for freshmen is under construction.

That physical growth has helped spur a revitalization of Atlanta’s downtown business district that state higher education officials say has an economic impact of more than $1 billion a year on the city.

Georgia State plans to add 500 beds a year to campus for the next decade, said Patton, who is set to retire at the end of the month after 16 years in office. And the school is scheduled to play its first football game in 2010 at the nearby Georgia Dome, home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

It’s part of the steady transformation of a college founded almost a century ago as an evening business school for Georgia Tech. As enrollment grew from G.I. Bill recipients heading back to school in the 1950s, Georgia State became an independent institution and started adding science, law and arts degrees.

The turning point came when the Olympics left town in 1996 and a 2,000-bed dorm built for the athletes was available. The university bought the building, its first residence hall, for $85 million.

At the same time, the state’s HOPE scholarship program was taking off, promising free college to thousands of Georgians. The program made getting into the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech much more competitive, and many high school graduates began seeing Georgia State as an option for the first time.

Since Patton took office in 1992, the freshman class has more than tripled to 2,500 and the average age of the freshman class has dropped from 22 to 18.

Students say part of the appeal is something many traditional colleges can’t offer: A flourishing community smack in the middle of a big city.

“A lot of other colleges are kind of secluded,” said Ashley Woolard, 18, a rising Georgia State sophomore from the city’s northern suburbs. “They have a lot of events going on here. Then you can meet new people on the campus through that.”

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