By Richard Smith
Interest in Ottawa University Arizona’s first year in the Surprise Civic Center is nearly double what university leaders expected.
OUAZ provost Dennis Tyner said the university anticipated 150 students this fall. Ottawa already exceeds that figure in paid deposits — in essence the last step in that process — with 188.
Mr. Tyner said as of July 5 Ottawa has seen 769 take out applications, received 388 signed letters of intent and seen 231 students either register or sign up to register.
“We are genuinely surprised. (150 students) was not a conservative projection,” Mr. Tyner said. “In this business, it’s easy to say you have a year to recruit. The truth is, you’re recruiting two to three years out. You’re building your pipeline of people. We really didn’t start recruiting until February.”
He credited the city for providing OUAZ a free second source of publicity since the Feb. 17 announcement of the university. Word of mouth also helped from Valley Ottawa graduates, and local Christian schools and organizations.
During a presentation at the June 20 City Council, Surprise Economic Development Manager Mike Hoover said Ottawa already hired 45 staff members. Mr. Tyner said 59 more hires coming this month, since it is a new budget year.
“I think that’s everything we could have dreamed of and more,” Mayor Sharon Wolcott said after the presentation.
From day one the college planned to build its first class largely through sports, given the short turnaround until the first day of class. Still, as Mr. Tyner said, Ottawa Arizona was not expecting 10-15 visits daily until mid-June, largely from athletes.
On June 20 he said that when the recruiting cycle looked like it was going to be coming to an end, a number of students found out they were not being renewed for Division I scholarships. Also, students finishing at coming from community colleges and thinking they would get Division I scholarships, didn’t.
That led to a second wave of athletes looking, and in some cases, choosing the new school with 21 athletic programs.
“There are several things that caught me by surprise. The first is the number of students who are truly looking to stay in this area to go to college but go elsewhere because they want to play a sport and go to college,” Mr. Tyner said. “We plunged into this fully … and I think that’s had a huge effect. Our relationship with the city is unbelievable. The doors that they are opening for us are staggering. We’ve been pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed with the number of students showing interest. This place was jumping on a daily basis until about 2 1/2 weeks ago.”
For the first year, students will are not likely to have the option of living on campus. Dorms will be modular units built elsewhere and shipped to campus — almost like Legos, Mr. Tyner said.
Student housing is planned to be three stories, but could add a fouth or fifth floor based on demand. The dorms will be built just east of the current Ottawa Arizona academic building, and will be built three levels at a time from east to west.
Mr. Tyner said the first block of dorms is planned for 216 beds. The school will find demand, he said, as more than half of the students currently in the pipeline do not live in the West Valley,
Per Mr. Tyler’s rough estimate, 60-75 percent of potential students are asking about housing nearby or eventually on campus.
“We would have loved to have the dorm in place,” Mr Tyner said. “It is unlikely that our dorms will be ready for the spring semester. But we fully expect we’ll be ready to have students move into our dorms by next year.”
Once dorms are built, Ottawa Arizona will be in a fairly unique position. Much larger Grand Canyon University, and more comparable Arizona Christian University, are the only other private Christian schools in the Valley offering a traditional campus setup. Benedictine University’s Mesa campus has a dorm included among its four main buildings but the sites are scattered around downtown Mesa.
The dorms will be part of Ottawa’s second construction phase, to start late this year and continue into early 2018. Other features of phase two will be the campus kitchen/dining/recreation facility just south of the current academic building, an indoor activity center, and a press box and athletic facility, with space for coaches and weight rooms.
Mr. Tyner said Ottawa’s central academic building — its “Old Main” — should be built in two to three years.
Before any of that, the campus will debut its signature athletic field for soccer and football. Mr. Tyner said the field needs to be open by October, when both soccer teams have their home games scheduled.
“I didn’t realize you were moving so fast. I think the outdoor field will be a fantastic addition to the campus,” Surprise Councilman Roland Winters said June 20.
He said as the university begins recruiting its next group of students for 2018-19, it will start to build beyond its athletic model. If there is interest, Ottawa Arizona can add activities like band, orchestra, theater.
In the first wave, Mr. Tyner said the degree programs garnering the most interest are business, exercise science, biology and education. He said he is surprised by the number of students wanting to major in engineering and willing to wait a year to take classes on the subject while the course work is certified and labs are built.
Ottawa Arizona will accept students until July 31. That date is the start of the university’s first three-week flex term.
Mr. Tyner said projections vary as to how much of the first student cohort will enroll in this short term, one- or two-class setup instead of the traditional semester model. The traditional fall semester starts Aug. 20.
Ottawa will know more by the end of this month. Mr. Tyner said as many as 50 percent of the first class could enroll in the flex term — or it could be limited to 100 students.
Once the newness of the university wears off, Mr. Tyner said he still has faith in the campus’ potential. The partnership built with Surprise is a primary reason for optimism.
He said the university’s leadership team meets with Mr. Hoover and economic development coordinator Kendra Pettis at least twice a week, usually more. City officials provide information for students as part of enrollment process.
“I have never seen a relationship like this and I’ve been at a number of schools. We are one unit,” Mr. Tyner said.