Samford University, a private, Christian institution based in the Birmingham area community of Homewood, is in growth mode as it celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.
During the past decade, Samford has increased enrollment by 22 percent, raised $200 million, expanded and updated facilities, added more student housing and created a bold vision for the future. That vision will be fueled by its new six-year, $300 million “Forever Samford” fundraising campaign. “We are benefitting from the efforts of those who came before, and we want to lay a strong foundation for future generations, ” says Samford President Andrew Westmoreland, who has led the university for the past 11 years.
Samford estimates its annual economic impact to the state of Alabama is approximately $335 million, including everything from staff payroll to student purchases. Its students provide about $16.5 million in volunteer services to the community.
The 108-acre university campus, with its striking Georgian Colonial buildings along Lakeshore Drive, has in recent years repurchased land sold in 1987 to Southern Progress Corp., publisher of Southern Living magazine and other publications. The wooded corporate complex has been reinvented with updated technology, including outfitting a 22, 000-square-foot health science simulation center for Samford’s new and expanding College of Health Science.
“When the land was first sold, there was the belief that it might again become a part of Samford, ” Westmoreland says. “And it has returned greatly improved.”
Alabama’s largest private university, Samford has been ranked favorably both for academics and value by Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and other publications. In 2015, U.S. News & World Report ranked Samford fourth among regional universities in the South. It has frequently been rated as Alabama’s top university, beating out the University of Alabama, Auburn University, and the state’s other institutions of higher learning.
Annual tuition for undergraduate degree programs at Samford is about $29, 000 per year, comparable to out-of-state resident tuition rates at the state’s major universities. Including living expenses, such as on-campus housing and a meal plan, the cost of a four-year degree at Samford is $160, 000. “If a student and their family believe that Samford is the right place for the student, we do everything in our power — from scholarships to financial aid — to enable the student to attend. Of course we can’t always make that happen, ” says Harry “Buck” Brock III, the university’s executive vice president for business and financial affairs.
Currently, the university enrolls approximately 5, 471 students from 47 states and 29 countries in arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health programs. “About 70 percent of our undergraduate students are from out of state, ” Brock says.
Samford’s robust enrollment increases during the past decade stand in contrast with overall college enrollment across the country, which has seen a decline for five straight years. Enrollment dropped 1.4 percent nationally this past fall alone for a total 7.3 percent decrease since 2011, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit education organization.
While Samford has stepped up its enrollment game in recent years, it has long lured and fostered some of the best and brightest. During its illustrious history the university has produced “more than 60 U.S. congressmen, seven state governors, two U.S. Supreme Court justices, four Rhodes Scholars, multiple Emmy and Grammy award-winning artists, two national championship football coaches, and recipients of the Pulitzer and Nobel Peace prizes, ” according to the university’s most recent annual report.
Samford’s past decade of steady growth is no fluke, according to Westmoreland and other university leaders, who have been strategically planning and fostering enrollment increases. Two of Samford’s lures are its newly formed College of Health Sciences and a new $25 million home for the Brock School of Business. Cooney Hall includes comprehensive research and financial data accessibility, as well as student business incubator facilities in its 80, 000 square feet.
Although Samford is not for profit, much of the university’s success in recent years has resulted from the business strategies being used to run it, says Westmoreland. “We used to just focus on academics when administering universities, and then we began to mimic business practices, ” he says. “In today’s financial environment, universities — whether they be public or private — can’t simply mimic business principles, we have to live by them and abide by them.”
He and Brock point to the use of metrics and data in recruiting students, creating programming and making capital improvements. “Education is a business, ” Brock says. “It’s subject to the same economic forces and faces competition just like any other business.”
Tuition and fees cover only 70 percent of Samford’s annual operating budget. Covering the shortfall, capital improvements and scholarships draws from Samford’s $270 million endowment and requires donations from alumni, parents of students and friends of the university. Cooney Hall, for example, was made possible in large part because of the $12.5 million donation by the Cooney family.
Samford’s previous $200 million campaign, which wrapped up two years ago, garnered donations from 17, 000 individuals. Samford is reaching out to a wider range of donors for its $300 million campaign, which includes $90 million for scholarships. “We have said that anyone who drives down Lakeshore is a potential donor, ” Westmoreland says with a smile.
Samford University has added 20 new health science programs in the past three years, including physical therapy, public health, health care administration, health information and social work.
Photo courtesy of Samford University
The creation of the College of Health Sciences was made possible thanks to the prior campaign. It was created based on the success of the university’s long-established nursing and pharmacology schools, successful nutrition science and kinesiology programs, and the growing need for health care professionals, says Vice Provost Nena Sanders.
Sanders has taken part in the university’s growth since 1999 when she joined the nursing faculty. Groundwork for the new college began in 2012 when university leadership began discussing a vision of growth for the health sciences at Samford, she says. “There was great interest in graduate programs from our undergraduates, and we knew that the demand for health care professionals was only going to grow, ” Sanders says.
Samford has added 20 new health science programs during the past three years, including physical therapy, public health, healthcare administration, health information and social work, for a total of 30 undergraduate and graduate majors and degree programs. The college also plans to add programs in audiology and occupational therapy and a physician’s assistant degree. “A hallmark of our programs is intra-professional education and collaboration as health care teams and emphasis on evidence-based practices, ” Sanders says.
Continuing enrollment increases are expected at Samford as the university continues to beef up its new College of Health Sciences with additional degree programs and makes overall campus improvements including updating facilities, Westmoreland says.
As the City of Homewood considers moving Homewood High School, which is across Lakeshore from Samford, to the West Homewood Park area, Samford may have another opportunity for land acquisition on the horizon. As with the Southern Progress property, Samford contracted for first right of refusal in case the Homewood property was sold. “Of course we would look at the opportunity if it presented itself, but buying the land would have to be something we would have the need and the money for, ” Westmoreland says.
Kathy Hagood and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Birmingham.
Text By KATHY HAGOOD // Photo by ART MERIPOL