Belmont is one of the fastest growing universities in the nation as recognized by The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, but the rising enrollment means Belmont’s campus is straining to accommodate growing class sizes.
From 2001 to 2011, Belmont’s student population increased 104 percent.
And this fall, the university reached 6,915 students with 1,409 graduate students and 5,506 undergraduates.
But what many people may not realize is that the line trajectory of student population has begun to flatten out, said university President Dr. Bob Fisher. “I mean we are not growing 9 or 8 or 7 or 6” percent, he said.
“We were 4 percent last year, and we are 4 percent this year. That’s not big growth numbers in my experience. Those are just healthy moves,” Fisher said.
While the student population growth rate has slowed, other aspects of Belmont’s campus are experiencing significant growth spurts.
From construction to the endowment rate, the university is seeing growth, but not without some growing pains.
Each fall, Belmont’s “biggest and brightest class ever” arrives on campus.
And each year, an increasing number of students return for second, third and fourth years.
The combination of the continually growing freshman classes and slightly higher number of returning sophomores is part of the reason Belmont has become one of the fastest growing universities nationally. However, the constant increase in student population is requiring Belmont to work ahead of the curve to accommodate the numbers.
Belmont’s first-to-second-year retention rate for 2012-2013 is a university high of 83.3 percent, which is well above the national average of 67 percent.
But just because the retention rate beats the national average, that doesn’t mean it’s good enough for Belmont, Provost Thomas Burns said.
Traditionally, the university has averaged between 80 and 82 percent but had set a goal in Vision 2015 of 88 percent by 2015.
So, is this goal possible?
“Probably not, I mean we’ve only got one more year,” Burns said. “To move a persistence rate up by four or five percentage points by a particular class is really hard to do, especially as your classes are getting bigger.”
One aspect the university has established to help better ensure a good academic and co-curricular experience is through the Students at Risk System and the Growth and Purpose for Sophomores.
The STARS and GPS programs may have a side benefit of retention, Burns said. But the true purpose is to provide students with the “information, knowledge and the ability to identify what they want to do and what they want to do to try and achieve their goals.”
By providing these resources for students to succeed academically and socially, the university has seen a steady increase of students. The last two years have seen a 4 percent increase in enrollment. But this growth has forced Belmont to pay careful attention to the hiring of full-time faculty to keep a low student-to-professor ratio.
Belmont has been able to maintain a consistant 13:1 student-to-professor ratio over the past 10 years.
“We’ve added something like, since I’ve been here in 2007, we’ve added more than 50 faculty lines,” Burns said. “That’s not replacements. That’s new lines, tenure-track faculty lines.”
Kevin Sanders, a May 2011 graduate and current alumni regent on the Board of Trustees, said during his time at Belmont, his freshman classes tended to be the largest but they still managed to be small comparatively.
“I never had more than 37 or 38 in a class,” he said.
Sometimes, full-time hires are replacing adjuncts in areas seeing demands great enough to create tenure-track positions.
A current head count shows that there are 300 adjuncts this semester.
However, Burns said it is important to compare the number of adjuncts to the total number of sections offered.
“We don’t have any majors where the majority of any sections of any courses are taught by adjuncts. All of our programs are taught by predominantly by full-time faculty members.”
While there has been a larger push to lessen the number of adjuncts from the 400 Belmont had per semester three years ago, there are a few programs like health sciences, religion and Mike Curb College as a whole that see a larger number. Burns said the reason behind this is the nature of “practical education” in those programs.
“We’ll have professors who are industry professionals, who teach one or two courses for us because they are the folks who live and work in that kind of world every single day,” he said. “So to have current and accurate, up-to-date information, sometimes it’s really good to have the practitioners as opposed to regular faculty.”
Sanders said he appreciated the industry experience an adjunct brought to a course he took during his time at Belmont.
“I had a business of law adjunct that was perfect,” he said. “I enjoyed getting to learn from someone who was a practicing attorney with real-world experience that would come in and teach a course at night.”
Belmont’s strategic use of adjuncts and careful management of new full-time hires has kept the effects of student population growth from having a negative impact in the classroom but space is still a problem that’s in the process of being solved.
With the opening of the Wedgewood Academic Center in fall 2014 and the academic and dining services complex the following year, Burns believes the lack of space for classrooms, students and professor offices will be alleviated.
But that doesn’t mean the space problem will be completely eliminated.
Student organizations have seen large increases in both members and the number of recognized organizations. At the close of 2012-2013, there were 144 recognized student organizations, up from 80 in 2007-2008.
“As our student population increases, we continue to see an increase in students involved overall,” said Amy Coles, director of Student Activities. “I can’t say how much for each individual group, but by and large, we’ve seen a steady increase in student involvement in all organizations in general.”
But as the groups continue to grow, space to hold meetings is becoming difficult to find. Very few rooms on campus can hold the 100-plus members that some organizations have grown to. And not all of those spaces are consistently available.
“I don’t have immediate answers to that,” Burns said.
There will be additional space available in the Wedgewood Academic Center, mainly the 200-300 seat chapel, but plans have not revealed larger meeting rooms in the works.
While Belmont’s growth spurt, which began in 2001, hasn’t been without its share of growing pains, the administration has worked to answer and alleviate the strains of growth’s impact one step at a time.
“I think if you look at the last 10 years for Belmont, it has really been ‘where are the places that we are going to struggle as we grow up,’” Burns said. “Certainly you are going to struggle for spaces for residents; we’ve continued to build that, academic space; we’ve continued to build that, faculty load/faculty workload and we’ve continued to build that.”