UM president gives update on university during luncheon

Published 1:18 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2023

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By NOAH WORTHAM | Staff Writer

COLUMBIANA – University of Montevallo President John Stewart III was the guest speaker at The Shelby County Chamber’s August Community Luncheon and provided an update on Alabama’s only public liberal arts college.

The Shelby County Chamber’s August Community Luncheon was held on Thursday, Aug. 3 at The Grande Hall at Old Mill Square in Columbiana, with Stewart as the featured speaker.

Stewart shared that the university has approximately 500 employees and that this year’s budget is $85 million.

The University of Montevallo serves 2,600 students with half of them living on campus. In order to better accommodate its student population, the university also recently acquired two local apartment buildings rather than proceeding through the process of spending a significant amount of money on a dorm.

“This is what I’m really proud of and what I love to say when I’m around my colleagues at our big sister institutions— 90 percent of our students are from Alabama,” Stewart said. “About 85 percent of our students come from within 100 miles. I’m very proud to say that 84-85 percent, in a given year, stay in Alabama to set up housekeeping, work for your companies and live their lives locally.”

Stewart shared that the university’s biggest challenge is an incoming “enrollment cliff” in 2026 in which there will be 1.5 to 2 million few college age kids in the U.S.

“Imagine if your company  just all of a sudden, in a given time, say two or three years, had a 20 to 30 percent drop off in the number of clients you served,” he said. “It’s pretty scary right? And it scares us.”

Stewart explained that the enrollment cliff is a result of people having fewer kids during the 2008 financial crisis.

Stewart said the university is also having to deal with rising costs thanks to inflation as well as maintaining its talented staff.

“Inflation hurts us just like it hurts your companies,” Stewart said. “Recruiting and retaining top talent—we have an incredibly talented staff at Montevallo but keeping them happy and keeping them on the team, as you know, is a challenge.”

According to Stewart, 95 percent of UM students are on some form of financial aid.

“Perhaps the biggest existential threat to our operation is funding scholarships,” he said. “When you have that many needy kids wanting to improve their lives—they can do the work and they’re smart, they’re talented and they’re full of promise—we have moral obligation to make sure that they don’t finish with lots of student loan debt.”

In order to deal with this, UM has to come up with an additional $1 million in its budget each year to help fund scholarships and compete with other institutions.

“Partnerships are a huge part of our success,” he said. “Last year, we had a net increase of $3 million in our financial position and that was because we were able to take care of our campus, recruit great kids and because we have great partnerships that help us sustain the operation. By far, when I travel around the country and talk to my colleagues and presidents at other schools—we have the best partnerships.”

Stewart shared that the university has a $35 million-dollar campaign, with $19 million raised already, that will be officially announced during the university’s annual Founders Day on Oct. 12.

Stewart discussed the addition of nursing to the university’s programs as well as its first ever doctoral program. He also mentioned the newer programs that the college has started in recent years like computer science, data analytics, hospitality and tourism, early childhood education, entrepreneurship tracks and managing the existing management and marketing programs.

UM has doubled its number of athletic programs with 23 Division II NCAA programs. UM has 550 student athletes from around the country and the world and the average GPA of those students is 3.34. This fall, the university will begin a men’s wrestling program and acrobatics and tumbling will begin next fall. UM is also starting archery and trap and skeet shooting teams.

Stewart shared that the university has been working on utilizing the old golf course for a new program.

“I’m proud to tell you that we’re putting the finishing touches on what will be the greatest mountain bike course between Snowshoe, West Virginia and the Rocky Mountains,” he said. “I’m told that it’s going to be the most spectator friendly venue, one of the best in the United States.”

Stewart spoke on UM’s contributions to society and on its “raison d’etre,” or reason to be.

“We are in the workforce development business, we supply you with awesome teachers, social workers, pastors, psychologists, counselors, business people, entrepreneurs (and) finance people,” he said.

Before closing, Stewart shared a few personal stories on UM graduates that show the humanity behind the statistics.

One story involved a student by the name of Rebecca Koen, who came to UM as the valedictorian of Gardendale High School. She became valedictorian whilst living out of a car a majority of her senior year, without much family support and while raising her two little sisters. She was able to go to UM on a scholarship, majored in social work and got a master’s degree after finishing later at the University of Alabama. She now runs a large nonprofit in Washington that helps homeless people with policy and she also served under the National Guard.

“Those are the kinds of things that don’t show up in statistics and we’re very proud we’re changing the world that way and that we bring people like that to Montevallo,” he said.

Stewart ended his presentation by focusing on statistics regarding the cost and value of a college degree.

According to Stewart, the average UM student finishes with about $25,000 to $27,000 in student loan debt which he compared to the cost of the average used car.

He said a bachelor’s degree, from a good four-year school, is worth $2.8 million average, over a lifetime. Adults with a bachelor’s degree earn $1.2 million more in their lifetime.

“The median return of a liberal arts college is nearly $200,000 than those of flagships or four years because so many people who run companies went to small schools and studied the liberal arts and we’re really, really proud of that,” he said. “We really are changing lives at the University of Montevallo.”