Education

Larger-than-expected freshman class putting pressure on UK's changing campus

Incoming UK freshman Chris Jones, left, with the help of his mom, Tonya Oliver, and brother Brad McCarley, right, moved into his private bedroom in the new Champions Court II, one of the new "living learning community" dorms on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday August 20, 2014.  Students in the "living learning communities," live with like-minded students who are given special opportunities to learn more about their particular subjects. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Incoming UK freshman Chris Jones, left, with the help of his mom, Tonya Oliver, and brother Brad McCarley, right, moved into his private bedroom in the new Champions Court II, one of the new "living learning community" dorms on the UK campus in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday August 20, 2014. Students in the "living learning communities," live with like-minded students who are given special opportunities to learn more about their particular subjects. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

When the University of Kentucky's freshman class moves in this week, their numbers might top 5,000, roughly 240 students more than expected.

Officials call it a good problem to have, a result of successful marketing about freshman academic programs and the new dorms where they are housed.

But that 5 percent surge puts pressure on all parts of campus, from facilities to class sizes. Resident advisers now have roommates, and UK has renewed leases with private apartment buildings to find housing for about 320 students. Some classes probably will be bigger, and more part-time and adjunct faculty have been hired.

"There's a lot of buzz about UK, with the combination of new residence halls and the colleges really stepping up to help recruit more," said registrar Don Witt, who cited record numbers of applications, campus visits and orientation participants during the spring and summer.

About 1,700 students have chosen to be part of "living-learning communities," where they may live in dorms with like-minded peers who study the same subjects.

Those students moved in Wednesday. Most other students get to campus Friday.

Penny Cox, director of housing project implementation, said the administration's goal was for every freshman to live on campus, but plenty of older students also wanted to be there.

Cox oversees UK's partnership with a private developer — Education Realty Trust — that is building residence halls. An $84 million package of five dorms opens this semester, and 200 percent more students requested new halls than old ones.

"I think that probably was a contributor," Cox said of the new dorms, "but more importantly, there's a lot of emphasis on the academic programs in them."

For example, the engineering living-learning community grew from 124 in its old location to 400 now that it is in the just-opened Champions Court I dorm off Avenue of Champions.

Another program at Champions Court I attracted freshman Victoria Scott from Chicago. The i-NET program, focused on entrepreneurial learning, will feature an entrepreneur-in-residence at the dorm and connections to mentors in the community.

"This gives me many more opportunities," Scott said.

University officials said they hope the communities will increase enrollment by improving retention rates.

"Learning communities are an important way to get students to engage in academic life of the university and include that in their daily life," said Ben Withers, associate provost for undergraduate education. "It's a way to make sure barriers of the classroom are overcome."

Students who can't afford to live in newer dorms, however, can't participate in a living-learning program. Room and board for an average living space in the Kirwan-Blanding complex, which houses freshman and upperclassmen, is $7,346 a year, compared with $10,508 at newer dorms.

Withers said he hoped that divide was temporary as Kirwan-Blanding is decommissioned over the next few years and everyone moves into newer housing, where all the floors feature common space for students to meet and study.

"We're focusing on the new dorms because that's where students want to live," Withers said.

New dorms and more programs have been aimed at expanding UK's enrollment past its current 30,000, but it also creates challenges. Officials have been meeting since June to plan for the adjusted freshman enrollment.

In addition to moving twin beds into the rooms of resident advisers, UK has renewed its lease with Royal Lexington Apartments on Virginia Avenue, where 160 upperclassmen soon will move. Another 160 students will live at University Trails off Red Mile Road.

Robert Mock, vice president of student affairs, said those spaces also would have resident advisers. In addition, UK has hired more interns in the counseling office, and more student mentors to help freshman on campus.

Withers said class registration has not been a problem, but some classes might get bigger.

"The deans have been very cooperative by funding part-time faculty, finding the staffing and knowing that the people will be well-prepared to teach," Withers said. "We're going to have to look closely at putting additional funding into the academic side, being able to hire new faculty and more full-time advisors, and enough staff in critical service areas such as counseling."

"Increased students mean increased demands for other services we should be providing," he said. "It's a good thing and it's a bad thing."

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