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Ridgewater College Bookstore clerks Jared Piepenburg, center, and Patrick Johnson, both of Litchfield, pack books Friday for Ron Klein of Willmar, left, who was making a purchase for his daughter, Emily, at the bookstore on the Willmar campus. Classes at the campus begin Monday. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Ridgewater to see increase in students this semester

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WILLMAR -- Ridgewater College expects to see a 3.5 percent increase in enrollment when the fall semester begins Monday.

The year also brings new recognition for the college and its online class offerings. Three degree programs are now accredited to offer the entire program online. The enrollment increase means the student count at the college's Willmar and Hutchinson campuses could surpass 3,450 students. A year ago, the estimated student count at the beginning of the school year was 3,340. College President Douglas Allen said he was pleased with the enrollment growth.

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Roughly two-thirds of the college's students attend the Willmar campus, but the largest growth in enrollment this year is in Hutchinson, he said.

Some of the boost in enrollment could be coming from people who have been laid off; others could be seeking a new direction in their careers.

"It just speaks to me of the value of what we do," Allen said.

It also offers some new challenges at a time when the college is dealing with budget cuts.

Enrollment could come from a wider area with the accreditation of three online degree programs for the college -- the associate degree in liberal arts, the associate in applied science degree in law enforcement and the associate in applied science degree in computer-aided drafting and design.

"It offers people another option," Allen said. "I think it will broaden the reach of the campus."

The college has offered online courses for seven years, and enrollment has been growing quickly in recent years, said Kathy Brock, Ridgewater's dean of instruction.

The accreditation is "more than putting classes online," she said.

To be accredited, a program must also show how it will provide services to students who are not close geographically, Brock said. Evaluators look at curriculum, faculty training and access to student services like libraries.

The college went through a year-long process to earn the accreditation. "We're very pleased with what we've done," she said.

Online courses are increasingly popular, and the college has gone from two sections of one course in 2002 to offereing more than 130 sections across numerous disciplines in 2009. Many of the college's courses are also blended, Brock said, with both on-campus and online components.

"For the student who thinks this is the easy way out, it is not," she said. "The first impulse is, I don't have to show up for class, but you still have to do the work," and course requirements are the same.

Changes in technology keep improving the interaction between instructors and students, she said, and someone who took an online course a few years ago would probably find it quite different now.

Returning students will see some changes on campus this fall, Allen said.

The college has finished its science lab renovation in Willmar and has installed interactive white boards, often called Smart boards, in classrooms as the budget has allowed.

"I think it's a wonderful technology for faculty and students," Allen said. "I think it really enhances education."

The college's mobile medical simulation lab was launched this summer and has been getting rave reviews from those who have used it, he said.

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