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Gainesville State continues to boom
Gainesville State College students make their way to classes Thursday afternoon at the Oakwood campus.

OAKWOOD — You don’t have to tell John Schmidt that Gainesville State College is in the midst of an ongoing growth explosion.

The Alpharetta man has been at the school on and off for four years, first earning an associate degree in exercise science and is now about to wrap up an associate degree in business.

He said he has seen firsthand the campus off Mundy Mill Road and Interstate 985 grow busier and more crowded each year he has been there.

"If students knew how small it was before, they would be ... more understanding about the situation and wouldn’t file complaints about parking and so forth," said the 25-year-old, standing outside the student center.

Indeed, the school that had maybe 3,000 students in the mid-1990s is about to hit 9,000 this fall, as college officials are expecting a 10 percent increase from last year.

"We have another record enrollment, and it’s hard to know right now (final numbers) because we’re still settling out," said the college’s president, Martha Nesbitt, in her office Thursday.

Fall semester classes began Monday.

"We have a number of students who have applied for financial aid who we’re pretty sure are going to get it but it hasn’t come through yet."

Probably by the week after Labor Day, "we should have a pretty firm grip on the amount of growth," Nesbitt said.

She learned last year, to no real surprise, that over the past 10 years, Gainesville State has grown more than any other school in the University System of Georgia.

"It’s a challenge, but it’s certainly the better kind of challenge," Nesbitt said.

Students may have noticed more bustle as they returned to class this week, particularly as they search for parking spaces.

But officials believe they are better positioned this year than last in that area since the college opened in July a new 380-space parking deck.

"Even though we’ve had a substantial growth in student population, our parking resources have been able to hold it, and that’s generally the biggest issue for us," said Richard Goodson, public safety director.

The 9,000 enrollment is shared between the Oakwood and Oconee County campuses. The Oconee campus, which boomed after it was opened several years ago, has peaked at about 2,000 students.

Nesbitt feels Gainesville State is considered to be attractive for several reasons, but largely because it gives students the chance to take core-curriculum classes with a smaller teacher-student ratio.

"When many students — I don’t care how sophisticated they are — get in an environment where they are in classes of 300 to 400, the professors don’t know their names and don’t care if they come to class, that’s a pretty tough transition," she said.

Schmidt said that he believes Gainesville State is the popular second choice for many students unable to get into the University of Georgia.

"There is a lot of hype about transferring from here to UGA," he said.

Massive growth produces problems, however, mainly in the area of finding classroom space.

A planned $28 million, 130,000-square-foot academic building is expected to bring relief. The building, which will house humanities, business and education classes, is almost ready for construction.

"The construction company has assured us that if the bonds are sold in October ... that we would be able to be in the building by early summer of 2011," Nesbitt said.

With a hint of urgency in her voice, she added, "We must be in that building by fall of 2011."

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