Despite posting low enrollment numbers last year, UTC administrators said the state of the university on its 130th anniversary is strong.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor Steve Angle gave the annual address Thursday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Chamberlain Field, a former football field that has been repurposed as a communal green space in the center of campus.
"All of our oars are pulling together in the same direction: forward," Angle announced.
He pointed to total enrollment, which has grown to 11,533 students this year. Graduate enrollment increased by 4.5 percent, while undergrad- uate enrollment increased by 0.9 percent. At 2,080 students, freshman enrollment grew 11.5 percent.
But, this freshman class is the second-smallest UTC has seen since the number dipped to 1,948 in 2010. This year's increase is primarily a sign of recovery after last year's drop to 1,865 — a 16 percent decrease from 2014.
The Times Free Press previously reported the precipitous decline was tied to the 2014 rollout of Tennessee Promise, an education program that covers tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship or state student assistance funds.
For the first time in recent history, more than half of the graduating seniors in Hamilton County who planned on pursuing post-secondary education said they would attend two-year schools instead of four-year schools, according to the Public Education Foundation.
Even before this school year began, UTC administrators were optimistic about the university's ability to rebound in a landscape changed by Tennessee Promise.
Chuck Cantrell, associate vice chancellor of communication, said the school was set to add 200 students in the fall.
Angle attributed the success to the continued dedication of teachers and staff who cherish this "school of the people," as well as a series of business and educational programs that have been introduced over the last few years.
"We educate students to be good citizens in our society," he said. "We seek innovative and entrepreneurial solutions."
He pointed to factors like a Blue Ribbon Award Program, which recognizes staff members for excellence; the start of a campus wellness initiative; and the endeavors of the UTC School of Education, which now pairs future teachers with high-performing educators already working in the public school system.
On Wednesday, Cantrell issued a news release highlighting the expansion of student services for veterans.
"UTC has opened an Office of Veteran and Military Student Services to offer assistance to veterans and their families, and an active Student Veterans Organization has developed on campus," the release said.
The second focus of Thursday's event was the official opening of Chamberlain Field, which administrators hope will become a central hub for students in the massive shadow of the new $48 million library, which opened last year.
For decades, it served as a football field, and a former player who spent hours on the field when he was a student there praised the decision to breathe new life into the space.
Bucky Wolford said it holds a special place in the hearts of graduates.
"Many of us chose our partners in life here," Wolford said, recounting how he first saw his future wife when she was a UTC majorette, twirling a baton on the other side of the field.
"That was the most beautiful lady I'd ever seen in my life," he said.
The installation, which includes a concrete bonfire pit, was the brainchild of 2014 alumnus Nathan Harlan. While still a student, he approached Angle with a desire to see more branding in the area of the university to encourage school spirit.
He now works as a corporate controller for Volkswagen and showed up Thursday to show support. Looking at the brick "C" affixed to a hill on the field's side, Harlan said the site fills him with pride.
"It means everything. I wanted something large so you couldn't miss it," he said.
Harlan got his wish, and now he's hopeful students will be able to use it as a touchstone as a part of UTC's newest social hub. He said he's already seen students laying on the grass or sitting on the steps.
Peter Hagemeyer, a senior at UTC, said the field is a huge improvement to the campus.
"For a long time, the library and the old Chamberlain Field were a big construction zone. Now that it's completed, the space has really opened up the center of campus in a beautiful way.
"It's easier to get from place to place and it's a great gathering point."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.