Motlow enrollment mushrooms at Smyrna campus

The Murfreesboro Post, August 16, 2017

Enrollment at Motlow-Smyrna is booming partly due to fun events like the annual International Day at the community college, but also due to Rutherford growth and the Tennessee Promise. JOHN BUTWELL

Don’t look now, but when classes start Aug. 28 at Motlow State Community College, the Smyrna campus off the Sam Ridley Parkway will be bursting at the seams.

With less than a week left before enrollment closes Aug. 21, Motlow administrators listed 2,995 as their student head count for Smyrna – up about 10 percent over last fall’s final count of 2,729.

And the halls and classrooms at Motlow-Smyrna were crowded on opening day last fall, already.

“We’ve gotten so full on campus that we’re offering classes at the La Vergne Public Library during the day,” Smyrna Academic Dean Elizabeth Fitch says, “and we’re offering classes at Shelbyville for people from that end of Rutherford County at MTSU’s education center there.”

The new Shelbyville classes, Fitch explains, are part of the Middle Tennessee Education Center, a partnership between Motlow, MTSU and Bedford County. Plus, according to Fitch, “we’ve acquired space at TCAT,” the new Smyrna campus of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology across Nissan Drive from the Nissan plant.

Online, parking solutions

Another solution to Motlow’s space crunch that’s been helping is offering more online classes. College-wide, including students at all four Motlow campuses including Smyrna, Moore County, McMinnville and Fayetteville, online classes have increased from 20 percent of Motlow’s classes to a projected 26 percent.

On campus in Smyrna, one of the biggest concerns is, where will all those new students park? Not to worry – “we’re putting in 750 new parking spaces sometime this fall,” Fitch says.

The only thing the college is waiting on is finalizing the purchase of the adjacent property needed for the parking, according to Fitch. And in the meantime, the field behind the campus center where her office is located will be graveled to accommodate more student cars.

Professors to teach all the new students are another problem, of course. “We are hiring nine full-time faculty for the fall semester, but that will not get us across the finish line to cover classes,” Fitch wrote in an email to current professors last month seeking recommendations for adjunct instructors who will teach part time to fill the gap.

‘Another 450 expected’

The 266-student increase so far over last year may not be all, Fitch adds – another 450 or so are expected to register this week, before Aug. 21. Plus, 613 were dropped in a purge for non-payment of their tuition and fees, and the college is contacting all of them to try to get them back on the rolls.

Before the purge, the student count at Motlow-Smyrna stood at 3,350 on Friday, Aug. 11. Gaining the dropped students back and registering more could, conceivably, push enrollment at the northwestern Rutherford County campus up to hundreds more than 3,000 – a 20 or 30 percent increase over last year.

However, “the numbers are a little inflated,” Fitch is quick to admit. If a student attending the Moore County campus, for instance, signs up for an online class based at Smyrna, he or she could be counted twice.

However, “you can definitely say we’ve exceeded the 3,000 mark,” Fitch says with a quiet grin. She partly credits Tennessee Promise – the state program that provides the first two years of community or technical college free to all new high school graduates – and Tennessee Reconnect, a similar program for adults 25 and over.

Reconnect is not scheduled to begin statewide until next year. But Fitch says some students are being enrolled in a “soft start” of the program this year at Motlow, which is cobbling together available resources to help non-traditional students go to college.

Fulfilling ‘the Promise’

Both Promise and Reconnect are part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” to improve the state’s college graduation rate. But even local students who aren’t eligible for either of the programs often enroll at Motlow because it’s closer to home than other schools and with its low tuition rates, “it’s about half the price,” Fitch points out.

A longer-range solution to the overcrowding is construction of a large new building at the Smyrna campus – and last month State Rep. Mike Sparks announced that the State Building Commission has officially approved $27.2 million allocated for the new building by Gov. Haslam and the state legislature last spring.

The third building will nearly double the available space at Motlow-Smyrna, Fitch says, since its 80,000 square feet will be 28,000 larger than the combined total of the original 17,000-foot Smyrna Center and its 35,000-square-foot neighbor, the MaryLou Apple Science, Technology and Health Building.

At least 7 new labs

“It’s going to be a tremendous help,” said Fitch. “It’s going to have a lot of new labs, including a new medical laboratory technicians’ lab, two new biology labs, an A&P lab (anatomy and physiology), two new mechatronics labs, a new chemistry lab, and enough office space for our faculty.”

That office space will be especially welcome to Motlow’s adjuncts, who currently share a narrow, crowded office with fewer than a dozen computers. But in the new building, the “huge office area for our adjuncts” will include 30 work stations, according to Fitch.

Books, media and study space are essential to any institution of higher education, and for that reason the new building will include a new 8,000-square-foot library, Fitch also says. The current library is cramped into one small room of the Smyrna Center.

A groundbreaking is envisioned for this fall, and in the meantime the construction site may be used for… more parking, according to Fitch. Construction is scheduled to begin next spring, hopefully in time for the new building to open in fall 2019.

New degree programs

With all the new students and growth, the college also is inaugurating some new, needed degree programs, Fitch adds. First will be the new medical laboratory technicians’ program, which will officially begin next spring but is already attracting students for required general education courses.

A project several years in the making, the new degree program came about from input Fitch received from community and industry councils of the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, she explains.

At those meetings, healthcare professionals alerted her to the urgent need for medical lab technicians, who “actually do the diagnoses for doctors” from biopsies, blood and urine samples, and more, explains Fitch, who is a biology professor herself.

Both locally and nationally, not enough medical lab techs are being trained, and experienced ones are aging out, Fitch continues. “Their average age nationally is 58,” she says. “There’s a desperate need for new people.”

Blazing new ‘Pathways’

Most Motlow programs are part of Tennessee Transfer Pathways that lead students to four-year degrees after they graduate with associate’s diplomas from the community college. MTSU doesn’t have a medical lab bachelor’s yet, Fitch says – but she’s hoping the university will develop one like the pathway partnership it has with Motlow and Rutherford County Schools in the booming field of mechatronics.

Other new programs Motlow is hoping to inaugurate slightly further down the pipeline are cybersecurity, paralegal and medical coding degrees, according to the Smyrna dean.

Good news for the community college as a whole, meanwhile, is that its growth is general. Enrollment reports coming out daily show increases at Moore County, McMinnville, and Fayetteville as well as Smyrna, reaching a record student head count of 5,783 college-wide by Friday, Aug. 11.

“All of our campuses are growing just a little,” Fitch notes, “but obviously, Smyrna is where our major growth is coming. With our growth, nobody can deny this new building is needed.”

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