COLUMBUS — Founded in 1884 as the nation’s first public college for women, the Mississippi University for Women (MUW) not only boasts a magnificent campus that has 24 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also ranked as the number one regional public liberal arts college in the South by U.S. News & World Report.
“It is the second year in the a row we have been ranked number one in that category,” said Chris Robbins, MUW dean of enrollment management. “We also ranked number one in academic reputation among peer institutions by U.S. News & World Report for 1999, and we’re in the top five for campus diversity. About 30% of our students are minorities.”
MUW’s enrollment has greatly increased in the past decade under the leadership of university president Dr. Clyda Stokes Rent. The 57% increase in enrollment since 1989 represents a growth rate eight times the national average.
“Not coincidentally, the growth in enrollment coincides almost exactly with the arrival of Dr. Rent on campus,” Robbins said. “During her 10 years of service to this institution, she has really energized the entire university community: students, faculty and staff, and alumni. She has been a tremendous catalyst for all of the good things that have happened in the past decade.”
MUW started enrolling men in 1982, and men now make up about 18% of the student body. Rent is fond of calling the college “the Mississippi University for Women and smart men, too.” The university has students from 36 different countries, from more than half of the states in the U.S., and from 77 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. The college had the highest freshmen ACT scores among Mississippi’s public universities this year.
Current enrollment is 3,314, with about 700 students living on campus. In a town of 33,000, the university has a big impact on the economy. Student expenditures in Lowndes County were estimated at $16.5 million last year.
“But in many ways I think the financial contribution our students make is not our most telling statistic,” Robbins said. “All freshmen at the W are required to volunteer a minimum of two hours of community service, and our social clubs are heavily involved in volunteerism. So the community benefits from the direct involvement of our students in a wide variety of efforts.”
University spending in the community totals $30 million per year with a total economic multiplier impact estimated at $101.5 million per year.
“We’re just happy to have them here, and we think it enhances our city,” said Columbus Mayor George S. Wade. “It is kind of like having an extra industry in town. The economic estimates I’ve seen are underestimates, in my opinion. It would affect the city in a drastic manner if we didn’t have MUW here.”
Wade said the campus is also an tourist attraction. The historic campus has 61 buildings situation on 104 acres representing a wide range of architectural styles. The campus is not only a showplace for history, but also has an enviable technological sophistication. MUW is one of only two colleges in the state with a fiber optic cable network that connects every classroom and residence hall room on campus with the Internet. Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, and his birthplace serves as the visitor’s center for the community. The town that boasts more than 100 antebellum homes and a large number of other historic structures is also is the birthplace of the Memorial Day holiday.
The university and community enjoy an unusually close relationship.
“It adds diversity to our community, and adds to the culture here,” Wade said. “If people’s children or grandchildren are here, it attracts people here for the continual functions held at the W. It is very similar to a tourist attraction in that sense.”
Wade also believes the university is a big draw to attract retirees to the area, particularly military retirees. The college in combination with the commissary and other services available at Columbus Air Force Base attract military retirees who may be interested in continuing their education. Wade said he sees retirees from all professions interested in continuing their education. Retirees aren’t necessarily going after a degree, but are taking courses for personal enrichment.
The city of Columbus recently started a program to reimburse city employees for tuition at MUW for taking courses related to their jobs. Wade said with technology changing rapidly, a lot of city employees are seeing advantages to upgrading their skills at the college.
Foreign language courses are a popular course for city employees.
“As we become more diverse, we need officers and other city workers who can speak Spanish and other languages,” Wade said. “What we are trying to do is update and keep up with the times, and the W helps us to do that. We are becoming more multicultural, I think, because of the facilities available here.”
Charleigh D. Ford, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Administration, said the college is a plus in attracting new economic development to the area.
“We market the college very aggressively when we take people on tours of Columbus,” he said. “At the front end of the tour, we take them to see the campus because it is very beautiful. MUW provides cultural activities a town this size normally wouldn’t have. You get all kinds of benefits.”
Ford said that strictly from an economic standpoint, the college provides a lot of jobs and student spending boosts the local economy. The college is also attractive to local businesses and industries interested in continuing education for their employees.