Students returning for the first day of classes Monday inaugurated the new Rogue Community College-Southern Oregon University Higher Education Center in downtown Medford as officials celebrated an enrollment growth spurt this fall spawned in part by the building's debut.
"It's fantastic," said RCC student Peter Dufault, 47, of White City. "It's new. It has all the bells and whistles."
The streets surrounding the 68,700-square-foot higher education center at the RCC Riverside campus were bustling with students Monday, bringing a noticeable increase in activity to downtown.
Meanwhile, RCC and SOU officials lauded the new building, along with bolstered marketing efforts and an increase in financial aid, for the enrollment surge.
Overall enrollment in the RCC system, including the Riverside campus, White City and Grants Pass, rose by about 775 students from last year to a total of 7,050.
"It's really exciting," said Joan McBee, director of the SOU Medford campus. "I've never seen this many people."
The community college and SOU, based in Ashland, joined forces to build the $22.2 million center hoping that it would draw more students and add more convenience for already-enrolled students. Construction concluded at the beginning of September.
The higher education center consolidates classes at SOU's satellite at RCC and increases class offerings. The center houses SOU Enrollment Services, a business center, and computer and science labs as well as testing services previously unavailable in Southern Oregon. In the past, local residents who wanted to take the Graduate Record Examination, or tests to be licensed as a certified public accountant, Oregon insurance agent or professional in human resources had to travel to Eugene.
"I think it was a great idea for the community and students," said SOU student Thomas Porter, 45, of Medford. "There obviously is a need for it. It's pretty busy."
SOU classes at the Medford satellite location used to be scattered among six classrooms at RCC and leased spaces throughout the city, McBee said.
The university classes now are consolidated in 15 classrooms at the higher education center.
"Students don't have to drive all over town to switch classes, and it's a much higher quality building," McBee said.
SOU also boosted offerings at the center. Sixty-two class sections are available this fall, compared to 42 last fall, including a new management of aging services class in the business program and a second cohort of a master's in business administration, McBee said.
"It saves time and gas," Porter said.
Porter drives to SOU's main campus in Ashland on Tuesdays and Thursdays and during the rest of the week, he walks from his home to classes at the higher education center.
About two-thirds of RCC classes are now held in the higher education building. On Monday, 2,209 out of the 2,748 RCC students at the Riverside campus were scheduled in classes inside the new building. Some 600 SOU students also attend classes inside the higher education center.
"This is my first year here, but the building is really nice, really accessible," said RCC student Courtney Facey, 18, of Central Point. "The classrooms are plain and simple, but they have a lot of cool features like the computer projectors."
Facey plans to eventually transfer to Oregon State University. She expects to save about $10,000 a year by attending RCC for her first two years.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.