HARTSVILLE, S.C. -- Higher education has experienced significant changes over the past several years. The student population that we serve today does not necessarily fit the typical “college kid” persona.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five undergraduate students are now age 30 or older. One-half of all undergrads are financially independent from their parents; 44 percent are first-generation college students whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree. One in every four American undergraduate students is caring for a child of their own.

With all that in mind, it makes sense that the educational experience we provided students a decade ago needs some updating. Coker College, soon to be Coker University, has made it our mission to support students from all backgrounds and to ensure that the Coker experience is reflective of the evolving needs of today’s students.

This July will mark 10 years that I have proudly served as the president of Coker College. It is remarkable how much the college and Hartsville have accomplished together.

The most visible changes are the result of literal growth at Coker, as the campus has expanded and extended across East Carolina Avenue. We built new student housing in 2013 and 2015: the Betty Y. and Charles L. Sullivan Jr. Residence Hall and Susan K. and Walter N. George Residence Hall, respectively. We also added the Harris E. & Louise H. DeLoach Center in 2014, a comprehensive athletic complex that now houses a total of 24 NCAA Division II teams. We have recently added a varsity esports team and will welcome acrobatics and tumbling in the fall of 2019.

We have developed more flexible educational options for a student body growing in diversity. We established fully online undergraduate programs in business management, criminology, psychology and sociology. We created online master’s degree programs in college athletic administration, management and leadership, criminal and social justice policy, and two masters of education concentrating in literacy studies and curriculum/instructional technology. We have made conscious efforts to be a transfer-friendly institution and have launched bridge programs with partners at several two-year colleges to offer students a simple transition from associate degree to bachelor’s.

In recent years, our strategic plan has also called for a focus on student success. This initiative resulted in the creation of new student success coach positions, providing students with personalized, one-on-one support for all areas of college life. We founded the Cobras in the Capital program, which sends the entire class of new first-year undergraduates to Washington, D.C., each fall semester for a firsthand cultural and academic experience. This past fall also saw the launch of AccessCoker, our new digital initiative that expands student access to collaborative technologies and puts an iPad and Apple Pencil in the hands of every incoming first-year student.

Perhaps most important, we have made great strides to address financial gaps that have become increasingly prevalent for our students. Our Annual Scholarship Fund now awards more than $10 million in scholarship funding each year.

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