ROOM FOR GROWTH:
• UTC enrollment has grown by nearly 3,000 students since 2007.
• Enrolled freshmen this fall: 2,200
• Enrolled freshmen a decade ago: 1,100
• More than 30 percent of UTC freshmen do not return for sophomore year.
• Only 38 percent of students graduate from UTC within six years.
Source: UTC, U.S. Department of Education databases
With eyes focused on buying the decommissioned Chattanooga State Office Building, UTC administrators hope that a new approach to dorm life could be the secret weapon to keeping students on pace to graduate.
One of Chancellor Steve Angle's primary goals in his first year is raising UTC's retention rate -- the number of freshmen who return for their sophomore year -- to match Gov. Bill Haslam's "Drive to 55" percent graduation watermarks.
At current pace, less than 70 percent of UTC's freshmen come back for a sophomore year, according to university data.
Only 38 percent graduate within six years.
"We're going to need to become more efficient in graduating per unit of time," Angle said. "You aren't going to be able to do it just by putting more people in seats."
But putting new students in a more conducive on-campus environment? That's a different story.
Tim Johnson, UTC's assistant vice chancellor for housing and resident life, said the prospective State Office Building venue would host what he calls a "super suite" room design. The housing alternative combines the social aspects of UTC's current apartment model -- up to six students sharing a central living space and bedrooms -- with Stagmaier Hall's compact, kitchenless "suites," the only such rooms on campus.
Tentative super-suite blueprints are 35-square-feet-per-bed smaller than their apartment counterparts, but Johnson said the cozier rooms, complete with a kitchen, would clear space for special classrooms and study halls located within the building to engage the students who live there.
If these students thrive, Johnson hopes, they'll stick around for another year or three to earn a diploma.
"The suites and more traditional style halls have a stronger community that develops among the group," he said. "We just don't have much space on campus where you can get 50 students together."
The designated super-suite study rooms could host a regular class, give students space for group collaboration or even provide another haven for independent study. Add gigabit-per-second Internet service here, some interaction with an honors group there, and voila -- Johnson said the building will be primed for keeping freshmen studious and social instead of unproductive hermiting.
"What freshmen want is an apartment with a private bathroom," he said. "What parents want is that engagement, that connection to campus and that success."
The university has 142 "standard" suites compared to 3,000 apartment-style dwellings on campus.
Timeliness is also on the table: UTC's most recent dorm construction finished in 1997, and the university also manages a separate property built by third-party Campus Development Foundation Inc., which was fully opened in 2004.
UTC administrators have reiterated -- with hundreds of students finding overflow housing in area hotels for the past five years -- that the university needs more housing for incoming freshmen.
Enrollment has grown by nearly 3,000 students in the past five years.
"We think we could fill 600 beds if we had them right now," Angle said. "UTC is becoming less of a commuter school and more of an on-campus experience."
That 600-range figure is the university's ideal number for housing growth. Angle calls it a "critical mass" to allow the school to have the funding flow to finance the debt service. UTC is negotiating with the state for a deal on the price, possibly a "token sum" of $1, but has yet to formally purchase the building.
Even with a token sum, the idea of moving in to the State Office Building's two wings is proving to be financially cumbersome. Administrators know they like the Mapp Building, which was built in the 1990s. But fixing the towering, seven-story concrete building formerly owned by Interstate Life and Accident Insurance Co., which dates back to 1951, could cost $12 million project.
UTC is still deciding whether it would renovate from the inside-out or tear down and start over in the nearby parking lots, yet officials remain "optimistic" about acquiring the property.
Angle said in August he would want the facility to be ready by fall 2016, but Johnson said recently that the process would need more time.
"Realistically, fall 2017 is a practical date to stand on," Johnson said. "Any sooner would be pushing us."
The McCallie Avenue location sits within two blocks of six other student housing facilities, as well as the new library scheduled to open in 2014. Discussion of a potential free shuttle to and from downtown businesses could turn the area into an economic upside for the city as well as a blooming campus social connection.
"If we hooked that up with our shuttle, all students would have easier access to downtown," Angle said. "If we have them on campus, let's get them down there."
At the very least, acquiring the State Office Building would give more UTC freshmen the chance to embrace the campus environment.
Fran Bender, UTC's assistant provost for retention and student success, said only 63 percent of commuter freshmen decide to stick around compared to the 70-or-so percent of on-campus newbies.
"It does make all the difference," Bender said. "If we lose students before sophomore year, in most cases, we've lost them for good."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.