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Construction on Utah university campuses marks growth

SALT LAKE CITY — Construction projects at universities across the state point to a steady stream of students staying on campus in addition to schools increasing online options.

Every four-year school in Utah has construction under way, from full-scale building expansion at the University of Utah to projects as small as a ramp connecting the upper and lower campus at Southern Utah University to create wheelchair access.

While enrollment numbers are still in flux, representatives from the University of Utah estimate an increase of more than 600 students on campus this semester, as compared to 2011. University officials reported 31,950 students enrolled last year, and had 32,592 enrolled in this first week of the semester.

Cory Higgins, who directs Facility and Construction Operations at the U., said the school's construction projects are driven by two needs: replacing old facilities or accommodating campus growth.

The David Eccles School of Business building meets both those goals, Higgins said.

"The business building is both replacing old space as well as providing more space and better space," Higgins said.

The 189,000-square-foot facility is in its second phase of construction and includes a 250-seat auditorium, modernized classrooms, study space, research centers and more. It is expected to be completed in May.

Other projects at the U. include a new arts and education building, a pharmacy building, student housing, football practice areas and more.

At the same time, the school is working to accommodate online studies. This year the U. increased online courses from 296 to 325 and estimates there are about 600 more students than last year taking classes online.

Alison Critchett, a Murray resident, is in her final semester studying nutrition at the U. Critchett said she took a mix of online and on-campus courses during school, but for her, distance learning can't replace being in the classroom.

"I get more from it … when I actually get to know professors," she said. "I eventually want to go to grad school, so with recommendations and references, that's a little harder to do online."

Critchett lived off campus through school, using TRAX to commute between class and her two jobs.

Even Weber State University, traditionally a commuter campus, is increasing options for a traditional college atmosphere. The open-admissions school is in the home stretch of its three-building campus housing project. Stewart Wasatch Hall, the second building in the Wildcat Village project, is filled to capacity for its inaugural semester. Ground has been broken for the final building.

Luke Denny, a new freshman at Weber State, came from Orlando, Fla., to study nursing. He lives in the new residence hall to avoid commuting and to have a more traditional experience.

"I wanted to live in a dorm my first year because it's part of the 'first-year experience,'" he said. "It's pretty cool."

Denny added that while most Weber students leave campus at the end of the day, he has already made friends with his roommates and the small community of Wildcats in student housing.

The school touts a variety of degree programs, with classes available day or night, online or on campus, "hybrid" classes that meet just once a week with additional course work completed online, and independent study options.

Because of WSU's open admissions status, classes are still open for drops and enrollment, so the number of students on campus is still fluctuating. In the meantime, university officials are projecting enrollment will be up slightly from last year.

Officials at Utah State University are anticipating their enrollment numbers to be even with last year, keeping on par with a 10-year growth trend. Trent Hunsaker, USU marketing director, said students are still seeking out a traditional on-campus experience.

"Utah State is unique in that it offers a true college experience. It's a residential campus," he said.

The campus has also made a push toward offering off-campus learning options, and opened its new Regional Campus Distance Education this semester. A new business building is also under construction.

In Southern Utah, Dixie State College is preparing to dedicate its Jeffrey R. Holland Centennial Commons on Sept. 7. The school received $35 million from the Utah Legislature in 2010 for the building's construction, on top of $3 million in 2009 legislative funding that went into planning, according to a Dixie news release. The six-story building houses a library, the English department, classrooms and student services including registration and financial aid. It is part of the school's plan to manage ongoing growth.

E-mail: Twitter: @McKenzieRomero