ARLINGTON -- Enrollment at the University of Texas at Arlington has hit an all-time high this spring, according to unofficial numbers, but thousands of those students may never set foot on campus.
Many of the university's 33,806 students -- a 304-student jump from the university's previous record set a year ago and a 35 percent increase since 2008 -- are enrolled in its online programs.
The College of Nursing, for example, hit a new peak of 7,995 students this spring, more than four times its fall 2008 level. Of those, 5,575 students, or about 70 percent, are enrolled in online degree programs in partnership with more than 350 healthcare institutions across Texas and beyond.
The increasingly popular online offerings, along with a massive building boom on campus and the growing prestige of many of its academic programs, are making UT Arlington the first choice for many students, said Ronald L. Elsenbaumer, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
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"This is not the institution it was 10 years ago," Elsenbaumer said. "If anybody who hadn't been here in five or 10 years walked the campus today, they would probably say, 'I don't recognize this place.'"
Hayli Ballentine, a sophomore history major from Flower Mound, is in her first semester at UT Arlington. A 2006 high school graduate, she is resuming her studies after taking time off to work. The choices came down to the University of North Texas in Denton and UT Arlington.
The latter won out, she said, because it "was a little easier for me to get to."
As Ballentine relaxed and studied in the E.H. Hereford University Center on Tuesday afternoon, thousands of her fellow students were scattered around the world.
Since UT Arlington's online programs -- which, unlike traditional courses, offer staggered start dates -- solidified beginning in 2009, the university has seen a shift in its peak enrollment from fall to spring, Elsenbaumer said.
The enrollment growth this spring is being driven by gains in business, nursing, engineering, science and social work. In many cases the students are military veterans returning from combat zones who want to study the same type of job they had overseas, university spokeswoman Kristin Sullivan said.
The nursing college's program was developed by outgoing Dean Elizabeth C. Poster, who is stepping down this spring and returning to her faculty position in 2014. The college boasts a 94 percent graduation rate.
More than 90 percent of nursing students pass state licensing exams on their first attempt, and more than 95 percent of master's level nurse practitioner graduates pass national certification exams.
The School of Social Work saw the biggest percentage increase this spring, growing 13.5 percent to 1,437 students. Sullivan said many students have indicated that they want to be trained in a new career and that they want it to be one in which they can make a difference in people's lives.
Traditional programs also continue to be a draw. Dennis Marquart, 35, is about halfway toward a doctorate in business management that he hopes will lead to a job as a college professor.
"I knew of some of the professors here," he said as a reason for his choosing UT Arlington. "It seems to be a rigorous program."
UT Arlington wasn't the only public higher education institution to report a boost in enrollment this spring.
The University of North Texas in Denton also reported enrollment gains based on 12th-class-day figures, which don't become official until verified by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. UNT has 33,715 students, up 210 from a year ago.
Tarrant County College's spring student headcount is up 1.2 percent, with a total unduplicated credit enrollment of 46,750 on its five campuses, each of which also marked individual gains.
Patrick M. Walker,