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WNC Business

Long-standing education institution brings life to small town

Jul 09, 2023 01:15PM ● By Randee Brown

Started in 1856 as an effort from Baptist families to provide a higher education opportunity, Mars Hill University is the oldest higher education institution that is still on its original site in Western North Carolina.

With 1,200 total students including those enrolled in evening adult classes, graduate studies, and traditional undergraduate students, Director of Communications Mike Thornhill said the school transitioned from Mars Hill College to Mars Hill University to better reflect its position. The shift in how the school approaches higher education and the addition of more graduate programs were reasons for the transition.

With 35 majors and minors, programming at MHU is determined based on interest and what the University’s leadership feels might be strong or what the University may be able to provide a unique take on, according to Thornhill. An example is bringing Zoology out of another biological science major, which is unique for a school of that size. 

In Madison County and surrounding areas, Thornhill said there is a need to provide more options in entrepreneurship and business administration. Because of that, a new Entrepreneurial Leadership Minor under the business administration department will be launching this fall.

There is a committee of faculty and administration that examines industry, education, and workforce trends to determine if they are long- or short-term before programs are developed, according to Thornhill. Several considerations must be reviewed before a decision is made to add or cut a program, and lots of research goes into making that choice. 

“We have to look at what fits with the faculty and resources we already have versus what we would need to add,” Thornhill said. “We take a holistic view of where it fits in the University’s plan, the cost of running the program, the resources needed to execute them, as well as what potential enrollment might be.”

In addition to a variety of majors and minors, Mars Hill University offers extracurricular activities that provide opportunities for community engagement. There are Greek organizations, interest organizations and clubs, and pathways for community service. 

Several NCAA Division 2 athletic programs are available on campus. The MHU football program won the Mountain Division Conference recently, and Thornhill said the cross country program also does well in the region. This is a draw for students to come to MHU, as they may want an opportunity to continue performing in sports but may not want the experience of a large university.

Clog dancing, a traditional Southern Appalachian dance, is also offered at MHU. Thornhill said the clog dancing team, Bailey Mountain Cloggers, has won national championships and traveled on an international tour to countries including Greece and Portugal. A connection to local culture and ambassadors for the University, the team also performs at First Friday events on Main Street in Mars Hill.

Focused on attracting students from the community as well as attracting students from other areas, Thornhill said MHU has a large recruiting base outside of the region. Students relocate to Mars Hill from Eastern Tennessee, Florida, and other states. In addition, the University offers a scholarship called the Local Lion Promise which offers students from Buncombe, Madison, Mitchell, and Yancey Counties a 50% discount on their tuition.

Historically, most of the University’s faculty and staff resided in or near Mars Hill, according to Thornhill. He said now that commuting is so much easier, many of the University’s 250 faculty and staff live in areas like Asheville, Weaverville, Burnsville, or Johnson City, TN.

“Observationally we bring in between 1,000 to 1,200 people per year that are here from August to May or longer,” Thornhill said. “We try to be a good corporate citizen and want to be a big part of the local community. The University leases downtown buildings to local businesses, and it’s great to be a part of and have a positive impact on the thriving business community. We try to be as involved as we can in Madison County and Western North Carolina.”

Thornhill said MHU would love to grow and increase enrollment, but they must do it sustainably. It’s important to make sure students and staff have places to live and eat, there are staff and support for the growing University community, and there are resources available for the needs of a larger campus.

“We’d love to take enrollment to 1,500 as a near-term goal, but the main goal is to continue to ensure a high quality of education,” Thornhill said. “Mars Hill University is an unsung gem with good programs, and we will continue to bring more awareness to the University as we move forward.”