Feeling Full

The NAU Student Union is full at lunch time Thursday, April 26, 2015. NAU's freshman class grows larger every year. 

Over the past decade, the number of students enrolled at NAU has almost doubled. With 20,134 students enrolled at NAU’s Flagstaff Mountain Campus this school year, setting a new record for student enrollment does not seem like much of a record anymore. Beating our previous record set last year by over 1,000 students, the 2013-2014 student enrollment of 19,120 was an increase of 1,060 students from the previous year’s 18,060. This was also a new record at the time in the summer of 2012.

NAU administration and support services have ramped up their efforts to improve every aspect that goes into living on campus, whether it is public transportation or feeding on-campus residents. But the biggest improvements and additions have been made in on-campus housing. With more students from California deciding to take the cheaper and faster route to a college degree out-of-state to get their education here in Arizona, additional beds and parking spaces will continue to be added over the years to come.

“What we have done the last ten years is significantly increase the amount of housing on campus,” said Executive Director of Housing and Residence Life Richard Payne. “The (housing) projects would include McKay Village, Aspen Crossing, Hilltop Townhomes, The Suites, The Suites Phase 2 this past Fall. I guess that is about 2,000 new beds right there.”

Along with these developments, NAU has employed an architecht to create a blueprint plan for more on-campus housing, which will be presented to the Board of Regents in May. With NAU increasing its housing on campus due to increased enrollment, commercial developers have targeted the Flagstaff area to build new apartment and housing complexes, knowing more and more parents are willing to send their kids to NAU each year.

“What you’ve seen in the community is a lot of commercial development,” said Payne. “The Grove is one project, but there are another four projects that are under review with the City Council right now in varying stages of development. These projects are primarily aimed towards student housing.”

Along with developing additional housing for students, NAU has had to deal with other issues that arise with almost a thousand more people enrolling each year. Students expect to be able to get to one end of campus to the other in a reasonable time without having to walk. But, with classes getting bigger each semester, NAU and the Northern Ariona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority, or NAIPTA, have had to coordinate their efforts to help get all of these students around campus and the city of Flagstaff. One thing NAIPTA has done is added an articulated bus with greater capacity to its fixed route schedule that goes through NAU.

“An articulated bus is a way to move more people, at one time, with just one operator,” said Interim City Manager Jeff Meilbeck. “We supplied Mountain Link with 40 foot buses, and we determined over the course of three years that we had crushed loads and were turning people away. And realizing that when you turn people away, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. So we wanted to add capacity, but we didn’t have additional money to add another bus, so we provided a bigger bus.”

NAIPTA also has their Transit Advisory Committee and their Board of Directors headed up by NAU staff members like Payne, which helps create a fixed route schedule for Mountain Link that works for the university and the city.

“NAIPTA runs a fixed route schedule,” said Payne. “And they run every 12-15 minutes through campus and to the major apartments of the West side of the university and the Grove on the East side. They have also added capacity. They purchased an articulated bus, which has about twice the capacity of a regular bus, so they are carrying more passengers per hour. NAU has bought larger buses over the last four years, and just about completely replaced its fleet. It has got a couple more buses that are under construction right now.”

NAU runs a route schedule of their own where buses stop every three to six minutes. NAU’s Director of Parking and Shuttle Services Erin Stam gives a more specific chronological timeline as to when its fleet of buses were run down and starting to get replaced to now, where only a few buses are old and need replacing.

“About six years ago when we came into the department, most of the vehicles used in shuttle were bought used and often broken; you would have more buses broken than were out on the road” said Stam. “In around 2009, we purchased… I think it was 12 (buses). Then probably about a year later we purchased an additional 12 or so, but the first batch we bought was significant.”

According to Stam, these older buses had problems such as bad transmissions and engine troubles. They have also bought seven additional buses, four smaller ones, which are already on the streets, and three larger ones that will be coming in the fall.

A major problem Parking and Shuttle Services has is that buses are overcrowded and have crushed loads right after classes get out at hotbed times, like 10 AM or 12:30 in the afternoon. But the buses are empty and easily accessible when the demand for accessible public transportation is not there.

“We are packed during the change of class time, but the other 40 minutes, they (the buses) are sitting empty,” said Stam. “We actually run up to 14 buses during peak hours on loop, and the only time that the buses are full is during the 20 minute change of class time, then they are sitting empty. We try to be fiscally responsible, so adding more (drivers) is not good when you then have them (buses) sitting empty most of the time.”

Parking and Shuttle Services plans on holding an educational campaign that will try to teach students how to ride the bus more efficiently. Tips like not scheduling back-to-back classes on opposite sides of campus can reduce your interaction with NAU and Mountain Link’s buses when they are full. There is also GPS tracking on the buses which students can see from bus stops to look at whether or not there are multiple buses on the way to their stop or if they should come back later.

Another issue NAU has had to deal with because of this increase in enrollment is improving dining options on campus. Managed by Sodexho, these include restaurants that students want to eat at, but also meet the university population’s need for efficiency.

“We average, at one retail location, 750 to just over 1,000 transactions per day, so that’s meals served,” said Director of Campus Services and Activities T.C. Eberly. “Many franchises cannot handle that. You look at Subway, for example. We are only the second Subway, to the best of my knowledge, in the state that has double lines. We have two fully separate Subway sandwich shops in one location. Our Starbucks here on campus has three barista stations with three full espresso machines. That was a custom design by Starbucks, they had never done a three-barista station.”

NAU and Sodexho can add dining infrastructure to help meet demand, but the question is can it handle this volume of orders that happen every day. A five-minute wait can easily blossom into a 15 or 20-minute wait. One specific dining application that has inadvertently contributed to overloaded order systems is Tapingo. This application allows you to order food at an on-campus restaurant using transfers, taking out the in-person interaction of ordering food at NAU.

“We view Tapingo as strictly a convenience for students,” said Eberly. “It is not a sales booster. Tapingo is a startup company in the Silicon Valley, and we were their first largest account. We kind of entered into a partnership where we were going to learn together and we had some rough patches that first semester, figuring out how this works. The volume we acquired was far beyond anything they had experienced at any other campus. They were in Southern California and Northern California, but our residential population and our enthusiasm for that technology absolutely blew away all previous records for transactions. We went into it understanding that they would be able to provide a financial benefit, and we’re yet to be able to realize that because we just do so many transactions and students use transfers.”

With about 9,000 students living on campus, Sodexho receives around 18,000 transactions a day during the school week. Jamba Juice has their supplies restocked twice a week, while Dennys and all of the Starbucks restock once a week. Places like Star Ginger and other specific food distributors receive supplies five to six times a week. In one week, Sodexho oversees 15-18 large deliveries a week from different providers along with big, national chains running their own state-wide distribution routes as part of their agreement to come on campus.

With almost half of the students enrolled at the Mountain Campus also living on-campus, it makes getting big chains like Subway almost necessary to keeping residents satisfied and happy, with past restaurants such as Sub Connection not quite meeting the standards of the resident community.

“We were seeing declining satisfaction with Sub Connection,” said Director of Strategic Planning and Marketing Casey Fisher.  Sub Connection was a knock-off of Subway, and had a smaller menu compared to Subway’s multitude of options.

“But we were also wanting to put something new down at the Dub (DuBois Center). I think just the healthy sort of branding of Subway is a real strong draw, so what was probably the biggest piece (factor) is Subway has such a strong name and students were asking for more healthy options on South Campus.”

Once NAU saw the success a Subway could have on a college campus, with GCU jumping on the Subway bandwagon a year earlier, it was a slam dunk to add one on South Campus, far enough away from their off-campus store next to Target to make Subway comftorable supporting it. With a larger percentage of the student population living on campus than the national average, constantly improving the livelihood, commute and dining options is vital towards keeping NAU’s enrollment numbers growing, yet sustainable at the same time.

While official enrollment numbers for the next academic year may still be in the process of being calculated and finalized, it is highly unlikely the university will see a decrease in student enrollment. The Arizona Board of Regions wants undergraduate student enrollment at the mountain campus to increase to 25,000 by 2020 and NAU has set a new record every year for students enrolled in Flagstaff for almost the past decade.

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