Ask most Tennesseans which of the state's public colleges and universities has the largest undergraduate enrollment and the answer in almost every instance will be the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. That's wrong. Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, with almost 27,000 undergraduates, is the correct response.
The usual answer to the above question is indicative of the general state of knowledge about MTSU. In many instances, it is overshadowed by the Knoxville school, admittedly the flagship of Tennessee's higher education system. That, however, is unfair to MTSU, an institution that has grown in size and reputation in recent years, but one that does not compete directly with UT. Middle Tennessee officials are working diligently to acquaint more state residents with the school.
Part of that outreach involves an extensive media campaign. Another segment includes meetings and other gatherings with high school counselors, students, parents and Middle Tennessee alumni around the state. Chattanooga and the surrounding region is a main stop in that campaign. MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee met with the Times Free Press editorial board Tuesday morning and hosted two public gatherings later in the day. McPhee rightly considers it time will spent.
There are, MTSU officials report, more than 8,000 alumni in the region. More than 2,000 students from the area currently are enrolled in the school. McPhee's visit here allows him -- and thus his school -- to solidify ties with alumni, to build relationships with families of students currently on campus and to extol the virtues of the institution to prospective students.
His message merits a hearing. Though MTSU offers master's and doctoral degrees, the school purposefully emphasizes undergraduate education. That's a decision that resonates with many Tennesseans.
MTSU has grown steadily over the last few years even though admission standards have been toughened. Indeed, it might have grown more, officials say, if enrollment had not been capped. The tougher standards have produced a student body with higher grade point averages and ACT scores. That has translated into higher graduation rates, a figure widely used to assess the success of universities. By that measure, MTSU does well. It now ranks third in the state behind UT and Tennessee Tech.
McPhee wants MTSU to remain a comprehensive university that stays true to its roots -- a locally grown institution with a national and international reputation for excellence. If enrollment, graduation rates, the number of graduates that remain in the state (about 70 percent) and student satisfaction are any indication, his university is on course to meet that worthy goal -- and to attract the attention of more Tennessee residents.