CHICKASHA — After spending a year at Oklahoma State University, Conner Prochaska decided a campus that size wasn't for him.
He wanted a smaller college and class sizes that allowed for more one-on-one interaction with professors, he said. So after his freshman year at OSU, he decided to transfer to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.
But when he told his friends at OSU about his decision, most of them reacted the same way — with confusion.
“Some people had no idea that it was in Chickasha,” he said.
Since 2005, USAO officials have been working to reach more students across Oklahoma. But officials say that level of confusion about what USAO does is a major challenge for the university's recruiting efforts.
USAO's role as the state's public liberal arts school means the university has a mission to recruit students from across Oklahoma. But enrollment records show 60 percent of USAO's students come from the area near Chickasha.
Prochaska originally hails from Chickasha, so he already knew about USAO. He'd been on campus, and his parents know USAO President John Feaver, he said. When he began looking for a smaller university, it was the first school that leapt to mind, he said.
“I didn't really have to be sold on it,” he said.
But friends from elsewhere in the state often think USAO is a regional university, if they've heard of it at all, he said. Most of the people he knows on campus seem to be from near Chickasha, he said.
During the spring 2013 semester, 237 of USAO's students — about 26 percent of the university's enrollment — came from Grady County, where Chickasha is located. Another 35 percent came from the seven counties that share a border with Grady County.
Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, the state's two most populous counties, sent a combined 83 students to USAO last semester — just over a third of the number of students from Grady County.
Feaver said the university is working with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to correct that imbalance. The issue is partly rooted in the way the university was managed decades ago, he said.
Founded in 1908
USAO was founded in 1908 as a women's college. In 1965, the school began admitting male students. The same year, state officials gave the university the role of a liberal arts school and told USAO officials to raise admissions standards, Feaver said.
But when lawmakers gave the university that new role, they didn't give USAO any extra money to recruit students statewide, Feaver said. So although USAO was a statewide school on paper, it operated more like a regional university, drawing most of its students from the area around Chickasha.
That left the university in a position where its students weren't interested in the kind of education the university was designed to offer, Feaver said.
“We were essentially an open-access institution,” he said.
In 2005, the State Regents and USAO officials launched a plan to turn the university into the liberal arts school that officials had envisioned in 1965.
That plan involved the university gradually raising its admissions standards from 2005-2010. Those new standards made about 40 percent of the students in the Chickasha area ineligible to go to USAO, he said.
As part of that plan, the State Regents gave the university extra funding to help support its new mission. That funding went a long way, Feaver said. But when the recession began in 2008 and state funding for higher education declined, the university didn't always have the resources to continue with that plan, he said. The State Regents were as supportive as they could be in a bad economic climate, he said.
“They're being as generous as they can,” he said.
Today, the university's full-time enrollment stands at just over 900 students. Feaver said he'd like to see that total climb to about 1,200 students in the next few years. But to do that, USAO will need to be able to reach students across the state who would be good candidates for a liberal arts education, he said.
“You've got to have a statewide presence,” Feaver said.