DUE WEST, S.C. (courtesy indexjournal.com) — When the town’s Dollar General ran out of surge protectors, its manager, Andrea Callaway, hustled to another to get more.
Within a half-hour, the 17 she had brought back had sold out.
It was freshman move-in day at Erskine College. One parent, upset that an item her son needed had sold out, asked Callaway whether they had prepared for students’ return.
“My response was, it’s hard to be ready for something that’s never happened before,” Callaway said.
Erskine welcomed a record 430-some new students this year, doubling its haul from the prior year and far exceeding the goal of 370 it had set for itself, according to Provost Tom Hellams. Its previous enrollment high was 756, in the 1970-71 academic year. Hellams expects 770 once the dust settles.
The surge in applications is the result of a six-year enrollment plan that envisions the school growing to more than 1,000 students.
Hellams is among the plan’s architects, which include President Robert Gustafson and the college’s chief financial officer and athletic director.
The plan was born out of necessity, Hellams said. Erskine, like other small, private colleges, has struggled financially in recent years.
Such colleges rely primarily on tuition, Jill Gazzaway, the chairwoman of Erskine’s board, said in a document submitted to the General Synod of the Associated Reformed Presbyterian Church this year. “Therefore, student recruitment and successful retention of these students are essential,” she wrote.
Administrators saw an opportunity in what Hellams called an “athletic model,” which, he said, “seemed to be the best option for success in a short amount of time.”
Recruiters from the college sought student-athletes who might not have made the team at a larger institution, Hellams said. Students were sold on the opportunity to continue competing in the sport they love, something they could also put on a resume after they graduate.
Karson Powell and Jenny Boylston, juniors at Erskine, are both involved in freshman orientation and knew to expect a large freshman class when they heard the school was adding several new teams.
Erskine is adding six programs in the 2019-20 school year: track and field, beach volleyball, acrobatics and tumbling, bass fishing, rodeo and esports.
“We are expecting around 400 new student-athletes this fall. It’s pretty overwhelming at this point,” Athletic Director Mark Peeler said at the beginning of August. He estimated the total amount of student-athletes at Erskine this school year could be about 650.
Isaiah Lathan, a freshman, plays both forward positions for the basketball team. He came to Erskine from Forest City, North Carolina, whose motto is “small-town friendly.” He said he chose Erskine because he appreciates the small, close-knit community.
“You can go up to somebody and have a conversation and see them the next day and it seems like you’ve known them a while,” Lathan said. “You can get to know people here because of how small it is.”
Powell mentioned the motto “Know and be known.”
“Erskine has several things they like to put on poster and folders and that’s one of them. And I appreciate that,” she said.
With the student deluge, she was worried that many would be blasé about attending Erskine. Those fears were unfounded.
“I have seen them really prove themselves,” Powell said. “I see them actually trying and I appreciate that as a returning student and someone who really cares for Erskine.”
But there have been growing pains.
Hellams said the college’s housing department has had to scramble in order to make room for all the new students. The dining hall had to be redone. In July, Erskine bought an apartment complex in town. And professors have had to take on extra classes and are teaching more students per class.
“The classes are way bigger (and) you have to wait in line so much longer to get lunch,” Boylston, one of the juniors, said. “I’m not used to walking around campus and not recognizing people.”
Parking spaces, once abundant, are now scarce and designated for certain kinds of drivers: commuters, residents, staff, faculty, etc.
Back-to-school events such as midnight brunch and a service at the church were jam-packed, Powell said.
“People could barely fit in the church,” she said. “That doesn’t really happen ever.”
Hellams said the financial security that comes with higher enrollment will help the school academically. He hopes to increase faculty salaries, expand the teaching department and reinstate departments that had to be cut several years ago, such as languages.
Student body president Trey Watts, a senior, applauded the administration for how it’s handled the influx. He described Gustafson as very organized and said the administration has been willing to accommodate students interested in starting new clubs and organizations.
“The administration is very open to what the students want to do this year,” he said. “(They’re) very willing and eager to help out in any way they can.”
Local businesses have noticed a difference.
Larry Posley, the owner of The Produce Patch, said he has done more business in the past two weeks than he did during the same period last year. And Callaway said sales at the Dollar General have been unusually strong, even in the days after freshman move-in.
The Dinky on Main owner Richard Arseneau said “you can definitely feel the increase.”
The college is still small compared to most others. Lander University, the region’s four-year public university, is also bucking a trend among colleges in its class: it too has enrolled a record number of students this year: 3,227 as of Tuesday.
Freshmen Jack Taylor and Reilly Gobin — both on the track and cross-country teams — came from the Charleston area. Gobin said his high school graduating class was as large as Erskine’s total enrollment.
“It’s not that big,” Taylor said of the school, but the freshman class “is huge here.”
And returning students are excited.
“I think the growth is really cool,” Boylston said. “Out of everywhere that someone could go, all these athletes and all these students chose this sleepy little town to get their degrees.”