Katie Gibbons, a new marine biology student from Boise, Idaho, heard of the University of Alaska Southeast at a high school college fair.
Micah Nelson, from Big Lake, could have attended any branch of the University of Alaska for free, but he liked the look of the Auke Lake campus.
Those students joined a growing student body today on the first day of fall classes at UAS in Juneau.
The full-time enrollment as of Friday was 564 students, up 7 percent from last fall, said UAS Chancellor John Pugh. The number of first-time freshmen, 180, is up by nearly 40 percent from last fall. It's the second consecutive year for a big increase in first-year students. The numbers for fall of 2000 were up 51 percent over fall of 1999.
"We're hopeful what we're getting is a trend, and three or four years from now this will have a big impact on our enrollment," Pugh said.
The big challenge for UAS is keeping the students it has. Only about 5 percent of first-year freshmen will get a bachelor's degree in four years, Pugh said. The number, called the retention rate, goes up by the fifth and sixth years, but it's still low.
"We're doing a good job recruiting. Our next task is to strengthen our retention efforts," Pugh said.
Some students drop out. Others use UAS as a community college and transfer to another school to complete their degree, Pugh said.
The statistics for retention somewhat exaggerate the number of students who don't graduate. The retention rate doesn't include transfer students who get a degree. And the figure includes the many students who are going for a two-year associate's degree and don't intend to get a four-year degree anyway.
Rachel Schneider, a second-year marine biology student from Thousand Oaks, Calif., north of Los Angeles, is the sort of student UAS hopes to attract with its specialized programs and graduate.
Schneider, 19, wanted to study marine mammals at a small college and she liked the campus.
"It was small. I love going camping in the woods. You look at the campus and it's like cabins lined up along a lake," she said.
Although students come to UAS from about 25 states, most are from Alaska. Of the first-time freshmen, 152 of 180 are from in-state, officials said. The number of transfer students also is up this year, from 93 last fall to 120 this fall, 97 of whom are from Alaska.
The small size and natural beauty of UAS and Juneau are big draws, said students.
Gibbons, from Idaho, said she was accepted at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, but it didn't have the program she was interested in and she didn't like the look of the campus.
"I could just imagine shag carpet and red chairs everywhere," she said. Boise, her hometown, was "500,000 people and sagebrush."
Gibbons, 18, chose the Southeast rain forest and the chance to do field work with marine mammals. She researched UAS through its Web site and e-mailed college officials with her questions. She visited in the summer and was pleased with the wireless computer access in Banfield Hall, her dormitory.
"I like the appeal of the smaller school," Gibbons said. "You know the people better than a large school, where you're a student number."
Nelson, 18, from Big Lake, plans to study for an associate's degree in construction technology and transfer to the University of Alaska Anchorage for a bachelor's degree in technology, which he couldn't get at UAS.
After hearing that he won a full scholarship from UA, Nelson went online to look at the campuses. UAS flew him down to visit as well.
"I knew it was where I wanted to be," Nelson said. "It was exactly the program I wanted. Even though it's still Alaska, it's totally different from outside Anchorage. It's rain forest. It's like a five-star hotel in the wilderness."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.
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