By LANDON WOODROOF
Recent years have been busy for Columbia State Community College, the oldest community college in Tennessee.
The school opened up a new campus in Franklin in 2016 and has been enjoying growth in enrollment across the board. It has also gained more attention on the national stage, winning recognition last year as one of the top 150 community colleges in the country.
Columbia State President Janet Smith, who led the school through this exciting period in its history, joined the Rotary Club of Brentwood recently to discuss growth at the school, future plans for the Williamson County campus and how Columbia State is helping to change many people’s perceptions of what a community college is.
Columbia State purchased property off Liberty Pike in Franklin in 2011. A groundbreaking for the school’s new Williamson County campus was held in July 2014 and the three-building campus opened to students in June 2016.
Although Smith said enrollment at Columbia State is rising at all five of the school’s campuses throughout the state, it is rising fastest in Williamson County.
“Last year we had a 35 percent growth,” Smith said. “This year we had a 15 percent growth.”
Overall, the number of students at the Williamson campus has gone from nearly 1,400 to 1,500 students five years ago to nearly 2,200 students now.
Even with that growth, Smith said Columbia State is surpassing national benchmarks for retention and graduation rates. She expects the school’s enrollment to keep rising at a quick clip in the coming years.
As a result, Columbia State is adding new programs to appeal to a rising student population. One of those will be an anesthesiology technology program, which Smith said the school was working with Vanderbilt University to implement.
The school will also begin to participate in the Tennessee Reconnect program next fall. This program provides last-dollar scholarships to adults over the age of 24 who have never received associate or bachelors degrees.
“We are thinking that we will have many, many enrollments from that particular program,” Smith said.
To help accommodate this growth, Smith said the college plans to add a new parking structure and a new technology building to its Williamson campus. Smith said she was hopeful the technology building could get started as soon as next fall.
Smith credited the Tennessee Promise program with helping to give people new perspectives on what a community college can be. The program offers last-dollar scholarships and mentoring services to students looking to attend a community college.
“For us it’s…changing the attitude about what a community college is,” she said. “Often a community college has been thought to be a place where those who can’t make it at a big university go. It’s not. It’s high quality.”
That quality, Smith said, is reflected in some of the school’s programs. The Williamson campus offers a unique film crew program, where students can learn how to do things like operate a camera.
Then there is the school’s popular nursing program.
“Our nursing program is one of the leading programs in the state and always exceeds the national certification requirements,” Smith said.