Following Kia Across Georgia

Atlanta Christian College is moving to the Alabama border, enticed in part by a manufacturing plant. The institution has also dropped "Christian" from its name, becoming Point University.
September 22, 2011

A new Kia manufacturing plant is breathing life into a small Georgia town, and a Christian college is moving its main campus 75 miles to be part of the action.

Atlanta Christian College also became Point University in advance of its move next summer from metropolitan Atlanta to West Point, which is on the Alabama border. The university is adding eight sports teams and, for good measure, has changed its mascot to the Skyhawk from the Charger.

Point was outgrowing its landlocked 50-acre campus, and university leaders began looking for a new home a few years ago. They say the massive Kia plant, which opened last year and will soon employ 3,000 workers, helped nudge West Point to the top of a list of 12 cities vying for the campus.

“We looked at a lot of small towns that look like college towns without a college,” says Dean Collins, Point’s president since 2006. A Georgia Institute of Technology study found that the Kia plant would be a major economic boon for West Point, and Collins liked the idea of moving “our little college into this community, while prices are still low.”

Point officials say the plant will create new housing near the university, as well as social and employment opportunities for students. And they hope to tap into the Kia work force as students for Point’s growing adult learning programs.

The move meant it was time to change Atlanta Christian College’s name, according to university officials, but dropping “Christian” was a more complex decision than removing “Atlanta” and opting for university status. Point’s Christian identity will remain strong, officials say. But they also say the former name was sometimes a barrier for the college and its graduates.

“We know this secular world devalues Christian education,” reads a Point website that responds to questions about the changes. “It’s hard to be an influencer if you can’t get into the places and positions from which to do that, and as unpleasant as it is to acknowledge, our secular world does discriminate against those who have ‘Christian’ on their diplomas.”

The university’s makeover is startlingly broad, even compared to the more ambitious rebranding campaigns of other colleges. But experts say it may also be the sort of entrepreneurial, market-driven thinking that can help a small religious college remain relevant, as many face sagging enrollments and even closure.

“So many of these struggling, religiously affiliated institutions are almost antagonistic to the market,” says Thomas C. Longin, a consultant and president of the Society for College and University Planning. Longin says Point is being strategic and proactive, and that the broad changes should improve its competitive position. “They’re giving themselves a real edge.”

East Point to West Point

Point is moving its main campus from Atlanta as many other colleges are trying to plant a flag in metro Hotlanta, one of the nation’s most desirable student recruiting hotspots.

The university had planned to sell its current home, which is four miles north of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. But Collins says that plan has changed because of Point’s thriving adult degree completion programs. Point will use its soon-to-be-former home campus as a satellite site for adult students. The university also operates a site in Peachtree City, and plans to open one in Savannah later this year.

Point’s enrollment has tripled in just three years, to about 1,200 students, with the bulk of the growth being among adult students. The university entered that market in 2008, and already serves approximately 800 full-time adult students.

Collins says the university realized a few years ago that it was an appealing option for nontraditional students around Atlanta who are “looking for a conservative, faith-based education.” Point is also cheaper than its for-profit competitors in the area.

Point’s enrollment includes only 460 traditional undergraduates, a small number they hope to increase substantially in West Point. And trying to grow at the Atlanta campus would be too expensive, Collins says.

Four years ago, when the college had a total of 360 students, a consulting firm found that it would cost $17 million in new campus spending for the institution to remain competitive, and far more to achieve the ambitious goals championed by Collins, who had recently taken over as the college’s president. Collins is an Atlanta Christian alumnus who has worked in business and formerly served as the college’s interim vice president of student development.

About 80 percent of Point’s traditional student population hails from greater Atlanta. Collins says moving those students 75 miles from their hometown will be a plus, as the campus will be a “bit more of a destination” university.

Longin praises Point’s business sense and “courage” for taking such a big leap. But the university might not have had a choice, he says, because a residential campus of 400 students is not sustainable.

“In this environment you’ve got to go for it or you’re going to fold,” Longin says.

Jerry Pattengale is an associate provost at Indiana Wesleyan University and an expert on Christian higher education. He says Point’s move looks to be a prudent one, and that he’s confident the university can manage the name change without any major disruptions to its Christian identity.

For example, Biola University changed its name from the Bible Institute of Los Angeles decades ago, and Pattengale says the university “is thriving today, and remains unequivocally evangelical.”

There’s also symmetry to the university’s name change. Point’s current home, East Point, got its name for being the end of a railway from West Point.

Moving a campus isn’t easy. But Collins says the 75-mile trip isn’t so bad. He knows, because he recently moved to West Point and is making the daily commute to the current campus. Some faculty members and staff will be making that trip in reverse next year, but Collins predicts that most will follow him in moving to West Point.

The campus move and name change are already paying off in visibility with prospective students, Collins says -- a visibility that was sorely lacking at Point. And he says the university is buying real estate in West Point, a former textile industry hub, which is far cheaper to restore than building a new campus from the ground up. Point is renovating several existing structures, including the 77,000-square-foot former headquarters of West Point-Pepperell Textile, which will be its primary academic building.

“This is so much of a better investment than buying dirt and building new buildings,” Collins says.


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