Enrollment boost pushes Fresno Pacific to record

Enrollment at Fresno Pacific University soared to a record this fall, with the rough economy and ongoing cutbacks at public colleges helping drive a 25% increase, campus officials say.

Total enrollment stands at 3,314 students, compared to the 2,649 who last year attended the private Christian university based in southeast Fresno.

Tony Pals, director of communications for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., said enrollment is growing at private institutions. But Fresno Pacific's percentage increase is the largest he has heard so far.

"The state higher ed crunch in California, which is the worst in the nation, is certainly playing a role in the university's gain," Pals said.

Steve Varvis, vice president for enrollment management at Fresno Pacific, said that is one factor. Some new students said they had trouble finding classes at state colleges and universities or failed to meet strict admissions deadlines or requirements.

Bernie Vinovrski, associate vice president for enrollment services at Fresno State, said the university's high retention rate suggests students aren't leaving for other campuses.

But some prospective students may never walk through the door. He said widespread publicity about enrollment limits and other cutbacks likely deterred some candidates.

"I said long ago -- the beneficiary of these enrollment restrictions will be the private schools," Vinovrski said.

Justin Barcelos, 23, of Kerman is an example. Barcelos, a junior studying psychology, planned to attend Fresno State in fall 2009 but missed the application deadline. The campus moved up deadlines by several weeks to control enrollment.

Then the university -- like other California State University campuses -- closed spring admissions.

So Barcelos decided to apply elsewhere, and this fall landed at Fresno Pacific. While the price is more than four times that of Fresno State, Barcelos said he is managing through scholarships, loans and work.

At Fresno Pacific, Barcelos said he is happy to be part of a community that radiates the same friendliness as his hometown.

"It was a blessing in disguise," he said of missing out on Fresno State.

This fall also is the first semester at Fresno Pacific for his sister, Rachel Barcelos, 18. She said she had signed up at Reedley College but bailed out just a few days before the semester started.

Rachel Barcelos, a freshman, said she was never truly sold on Reedley College, where she had trouble finding classes. But she thought a four-year university was beyond her financial reach.

A series of meetings with Fresno Pacific officials turned that around. She was eligible for a scholarship and several grants.

"Essentially, I had everything paid for," she said. "It was a godsend."

At Fresno Pacific, annual tuition isn't cheap -- $23,640 for full-time students in the traditional undergraduate program.

But Varvis, vice president for enrollment management, said the university has increased financial aid over the past few years. More students also are qualifying for state and federal aid as income levels have dropped, he said.

The economy in general is another key influence on enrollment, Varvis said. During a recession, people often return to school to finish a degree or pursue a new one, he said.

For example, enrollment in Fresno Pacific's degree-completion program -- geared toward working adults -- is up 37% this fall, he said.

Those students "may have watched layoffs or been laid off," Varvis said. "They want to raise their degree level so that when the economy comes back, they're ready to go."

Like other private universities, Fresno Pacific has sometimes struggled to fill its campus. Two years ago, the poor economy and sluggish enrollment prompted layoffs at the university.

Last year, Fresno Pacific rebounded with a record number of students -- only to have that figure shattered this fall.

Varvis said the university has hired about a dozen faculty; some faculty members whose hours had been cut also have been returned to full-time status.

Current enrollment figures include 111 students in the neighboring biblical seminary, which had struggled with declining enrollment.

In June, the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren churches turned over seminary operations to the university.

But even discounting those students, he said, the university's enrollment increase is nearly 21% -- the biggest jump at Fresno Pacific in at least a decade, he said.

Related stories from Fresno Bee