By Jim Smilie
Louisiana State University of Alexandria Chancellor Dr. Paul Coreil told members of the Rotary Club of Alexandria Tuesday afternoon that the school is well on the road to achieving its goal of having 5,000 students registered for classes at the university by 2025.
More than 4,200 students were registered for the Fall semester in 2022 and LSUA has set new records for the number of enrolled students for nine semesters in a row, including each semester since Coreil returned to serve as chancellor in 2019. Coreil, who spent the majority of his working career in Extension Services with the LSU AgCenter, served as interim chancellor in 2013 and came out of retirement in 2019 to serve as the full-time chancellor.
Vice Chancellor for Student Engagement Dr. Abbey Bain said the school’s steady growth in enrollment is especially significant in light of national trends. “This is not the norm in higher education,” she said, noting LSUA was one of only three schools in the state to show enrollment growth last year and the only one to have double-digit growth. LSUA’s growth rate also exceeds the national average.
She noted retention has also improved significantly. “Our retention has increased 10 percentage points in the past five years,” she said. “When students are leaving LSUA they are leaving the right way. They are walking across the stage and leaving with a diploma.” The growth in students and retention has led to a corresponding growth in the number of graduates. In 2022, 731 students graduated from LSUA. That number increased 18.5 percent to 866 graduates in 2023.
Deron Thaxton, vice chancellor for finance and administrative services, noted LSUA’s operating budget and economic impact has grown significantly as well. “We’re the fastest-growing four-year university in Louisiana,” he said, noting the operating budget has doubled in the past few years. In 2018, the university’s annual economic impact to central Louisiana was $84 million. In 2023 the impact is $109.1 million. He attributed a large part of the university’s growth to a shift away from relying on state funding and focusing on generating revenue on its own. In 2010, the bulk of the school’s funding came from state appropriations. Today, Thaxton said the school is 80 percent self-funded. Looking at the university’s financial position for 2023, LSUA has a total operating budget of $29.6 million. Of that, $22.3 million is self-generated revenue with the remaining $7.3 million coming from state appropriations.
While pleased with the growth in economic impact, Coreil stressed his primary concern is educating more students to fill local jobs. “Our mission is workforce development for the critical jobs needed in our economy,” Coreil said. “So, it’s economic development and workforce development that we are focused on.” One of the primary areas the school is working to increase enrollment and graduates is in healthcare. Coreil noted that local hospitals are having to ration healthcare currently because of a shortage of doctors and nurses, which Coreil termed “unacceptable.”
To address that need, LSUA is working to expand its healthcare education campus in downtown Alexandria. The first degrees the school awarded were in nursing, and that continues to be a significant part of LSUA’s educational efforts with 70-80 nurses graduating annually. Of those graduates, Bain said 98 percent stay in the central Louisiana area. However, the local demand for nurses exceeds the current supply. “We need to double the number of nurses we are graduating,” Coreil said, adding “we’re really getting into the deep water,” with the school’s commitment to spend millions of dollars to expand the training facilities at the downtown Alexandria campus.
Established in 1960 as a two-year school awarding associate degrees, LSUA was authorized to offer four-year degrees in 2001. Under Coreil’s leadership, the university is working to increase enrollment and modernize its facilities. “We have a 1960s campus,” Coreil said. “We need to be a 2000s campus.”
To that end, the school recently broke ground for the $12 million Martin Family Student Success Center, which will be a central point for student support on the campus. “Students are more successful when they can make an explicit connection between what they learn in the classroom and what they need for their career goals,” explained Dr. Elizabeth Beard, interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. She explained the university is using a three-tiered approach to supporting students by creating a career center, a tutoring center and having career mentors for students. That is on top of other recently completed projects, including a significant drainage improvement project and the creation of a new entranceway to the university. A new food option for students, Burger 318, also recently opened on campus for students, faculty and the community at large.
In addition to physical improvements to the campus and its facilities, a host of new educational programs are being added. Beard said, “now we have flying generals,” referring to the new aviation program the school created. Earlier this year, the school produced its first licensed pilot. Other new educational degree programs include a Zoo Sciences program that is the only one of its kind in the state and one of only 10 such programs in the nation, a cyber security program and a growing Performing Arts program.
Beard said the university is also working to increase the number of certified teachers. “There is a huge teacher shortage,” she said. “We have secured about $1 million in funding to aggressively recruit and train teachers.”