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Montreat College reaches milestone six years after 'near-death experience'

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
Montreat College experienced its highest enrollment in its 105-year history.

MONTREAT - Montreat College went into a startup phase after a failed 2014 merger with Georgia-based Point University, president Paul Maurer says. Six years later, the school has reached its highest undergraduate enrollment.

The school has increased its enrollment by 67% with an average growth of 11% each year. Maurer, who was hired in 2014, said the first step was creating a new identity for the school.

“For the first two or three years, we spent a lot of time saying ‘OK, who are we? Who do we want to be?’” Maurer said. “Let’s get that clear, and let’s hire to that. And we did, and so there’s a lot of unity here around our mission.”

The next was building on the school’s liberal arts programs, then focusing on growing STEM-related courses.

“We decided that our future is going to be market-sensitive, and to some degree market-driven around science, technology, engineering and math,” Maurer said. “That’s the goal.”

Since reopening in August, the school transitioned into handling pandemic conditions. Maurer says the school had one active COVID-19 case through the first four weeks, a “little spike” the fifth week and two currently active cases.

The school said that previously active cases have fully recovered.

“Unbelievably, at some point, students are wearing their face coverings … well into the evening, after all the adults leave campus,” Maurer said. “But, I think for the most part, the habits have really taken and the community has really unified around the seriousness of COVID and the desire to do this well and get through the semester.”

Separate from the school, as of Oct. 5, Montreat’s ZIP code is listed by the NCDHHS as having zero active cases. Mayor Tim Helms said that the town has been actively communicating with the college to coordinate efforts.

Both Helms and Maurer agreed that the on-campus atmosphere has been more positive. Compared to 2014, morale is high.

“Back in 2013-14, the college was in merger conversations and then facing a near-death experience,” Maurer said. “Just imagine the morale of that era was a tough, tough time.”

One history professor noted during an all-employee meeting that freshmen were happy to be on campus. After finishing their senior year of high school at home, students are “ecstatic” to return to a community setting.

Maurer said he was surprised by how well the school has responded as well as its growth going into the fall.

“It’s surreal to me, honestly, that we are where we are, particularly in COVID,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s all very logical.”

Now at 647 students, an increase of 52 from the previous year, the school says that it has “maxed out” its resident hall space on campus and is currently renting space for students in Montreat and Ridgecrest.

There are no active plans for the school to expand to new resident halls on campus.

Following the failed 2014 merger, Maurer announced a long-term plan for the school to “principally (migrate) to Black Mountain” to the town’s Board of Aldermen in 2016. Montreat College’s board of trustees voted in January 2016 for a plan to accommodate an additional 1,200-1,500 students.

Now, Maurer is looking ahead to Thanksgiving. After having handled a few active cases “which I think were actually good for us,” Maurer says he knows the school can manage heading to a spring semester.

“My confidence levels of getting to Thanksgiving have gone up several notches,” he said. “I looked at the spring semester, and I just go ‘OK, so we just do a mirror image of the fall semester this spring.’ We know how to do this now.”

Maurer said he has remained in weekly contact with the six presidents of Western North Carolina’s local colleges and universities and MAHEC CEO Jeff Heck.

Seven weeks into the semester and six weeks into a startup, Maurer said he has remained confident.

“Next week we have midterms, and here we are seven weeks in and I have said it before, I’m grateful,” Maurer said. “I’m thrilled and grateful.”