Southern Oregon University smashed enrollment records this year, reporting a total of 6,443 students — a whopping 26.2 percent increase over a year ago.

Southern Oregon University smashed enrollment records this year, reporting a total of 6,443 students — a whopping 26.2 percent increase over a year ago.

The growth, which state officials called "a laudable turnaround from several years of low or declining growth," is no accident, SOU President Mary Cullinan said.

"We've been very intentional, looking at why students come and what keeps them here," she said. "We've established a brand as the public liberal arts university on the West Coast. We have a commitment to access and affordability, and helping students forge connections to faculty and the region."

Since Cullinan took the helm at SOU in 2006, the university has focused on developing those attributes and getting the message out to potential students and their families, she said.

She touted expanded offerings, such as an environmental studies program, a bachelor's degree in applied science for transfer students, an outdoor adventure leadership degree, intensive language programs for international students, and a surge in courses available online.

A shared Higher Education Center with Rogue Community College in downtown Medford and dual enrollment for high school students also have helped boost enrollment.

An estimated 800 students enrolled at SOU this fall are dual-enrolled high school students, who usually are registered in winter term. However, SOU reported significant growth in most categories.

Full-time equivalent enrollment, a standardized measurement of credits taken, is 4,524, up 15.1 percent from fall 2009's 3,930 — another record.

Hispanic enrollment is up 46.3 percent this fall from a year ago, helping push minority student enrollment to 12.5 percent and giving SOU its most diverse group of students ever, officials reported. Foreign student enrollment also increased 22.2 percent from fall 2009.

SOU also has its largest new transfer class ever — 674 students, an increase of 36 percent over fall 2009. Resident first-time freshman enrollment is up 15.5 percent and campus housing is filled to capacity, school officials said.

Freshman retention, another area SOU has focused on since Cullinan's arrival, increased to 70.4 percent. By comparison, SOU retained 62.8 percent of new students in 2003.

"When I got here in the fall of 2006, I was disappointed how many freshmen didn't become sophomores," Cullinan said.

Through careful study of what prompted students to leave school, SOU has focused on providing personalized care — from academic help to financial assistance — to keep students.

Despite a continuing trend of improved retention rates, Cullinan said the numbers still aren't as high as she'd like to see.

Statewide, freshman retention hit 82.4 percent.

The Oregon University System announced a record high enrollment of 96,960 students, up 5.9 percent from 91,580 students last year. In a statement announcing the increase, OUS Chancellor George Pernsteiner said this is the highest percentage increase for the system since 2001.

Ten-year growth for Oregon's public universities continues to outpace national averages, increasing almost 40 percent, or 27,452 students, since 2000, compared with average national growth estimates of slightly less than 25 percent at public universities, officials said.

Anita Burke is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4485 or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.