Dover becomes a mecca of higher education for traditional and non-traditional students alike.
During the past 15 years, Delaware State University has nearly doubled the size of its student body, adding 15 academic buildings and an off-campus apartment complex.
But none of that matters to Brandy Coverdale, 20, a sophomore from Wilmington. She's more concerned about the lack of things for college students to do in Dover.
Where are the coffee shops? Funky clothing stores? Cafés? Dance clubs?
"You want something new, besides the mall," Coverdale says. "There's nothing to do, especially at night and on weekends. I think they are trying to build up this area, but they are building more houses, not places to do things. If you want schools down here, you need to build things that would be attractive to students."
She's not alone in her sentiments.
And she may soon get her wish.
DSU is in north Dover, across U.S. 13 from Dover Mall and Dover Downs. It's grouped near three satellite campuses—Wilmington College, Delaware Technical & Community College's Terry Campus and the University of Delaware. Wesley College, the other Dover mainstay, is a couple miles away on the edge of the historic district.
Despite the continued college expansion, Dover feels more like a small city with five colleges, rather than a "college town" like Newark, according to Bette Coplan, vice president at Wesley College.
"It's hard to equate Dover as a college town," she says. "But I think the self-awareness has increased, and there's a real united push. It needs to be a more viable, vibrant downtown, a more sustainable downtown area. There's a lot of work being put into making that happen."
City officials hope to make the state's second-largest municipality—with more than 34,200 people—more cosmopolitan and attractive to students.
"I think that's something we need to work on, making Dover more of a college town," Mayor Stephen Speed says. "Higher education has gotten bigger recently, with the expansion of both the number of campuses and the students attending the campuses."
A recent economic study of the downtown recommended that Dover provide more amenities for college students, make the area more pedestrian friendly and improve parking.
John J. Friedman, chairman of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, says he doesn't view Dover as a college town, but as a community "that is attractive for schools to prosper."
"I wouldn't want to be known as just a college town, just like I wouldn't want a reputation for being an old fogie's town," Friedman says. "Dover and central Delaware is a nice mix of things. It's that diversification that is our strength. We need to build on that.
"I feel confident that having as much of a variety in higher education is a component of a successful economic development plan," he says. "It brings people into the community, and these people, namely students, live, eat and shop here. They eventually graduate, and when they seek employment, central Delaware may prove to be an attractive place to start a career. As the student population grows, business people will rise to meet the demand."
Wesley College has nearly doubled its population in recent years. It's "bursting at the seams" at about 2,400 students, (1,400 traditional and 500 adult full-time), Coplan says. The school doesn't plan to grow its student body.
Recent years have seen more than $33 million spent on new construction and renovations to buildings and grounds. This includes two state-of-the-art residence halls and the modernization of Wolverine Stadium, including installation of artificial turf, lighting and additional seating.
"We didn't have a spot to gather our total student body if it rained, so we had to run two commencements," Coplan says. "The current gymnasium is woefully inadequate. We're out of space here and very much landlocked."
Founded in 1873 as a preparatory school in Dover, Wesley College is a private college that has a covenant with the United Methodist Church. It has grown over the years into a full-scale college that offers graduate and undergraduate degree programs at Dover Air Force Base and also in New Castle.
Wesley affiliate programs provide educational services to another 1,700 students through the Campus Community School and the Wesley College Boys and Girls Club. The college also does community service through partnerships with the Schwartz Center for the Arts and Barrett's Chapel and Museum.
These partnerships are one way that higher education has enhanced the culture of Dover, Coplan says. She estimates that the college has had a $100 million impact on the city.
Delaware State University, a historically black college, is also a Dover mainstay. Founded in 1890 as the State College for Colored Students, DSU began as a land grant college for agriculture and mechanical arts. As the school evolved, it became Delaware State College in 1947, then DSU in 1993.
The student population was 3,677 this fall, compared with 3,103 in 2000. Since taking over in 2003, President Allen Sessoms has raised the school's profile through a more rigorous educational mission and expanded study abroad opportunities.
The university currently offers 64 undergraduate degree programs, 20 graduate degree programs and two doctoral programs.
Delaware State has always been an educational resource for the county and state, spokesman Carlos Holmes says. A number of research projects have related directly to the Kent County and Delaware ecosystems.
A recent economic impact report by the college revealed that for every $1 allocated to the university, $5 is returned in terms of spending in the state by the university, employees, students and visitors.
The report showed that DSU had an economic impact of more than $207 million and accounted for the creation of 3,525 jobs.
Wilmington College, which opened a campus at its current site along U.S. 13 in 2000, is the most recent addition to the conglomerate of colleges and universities in Dover.
The private college opened at the Dover Air Force Base in the 1980s, before moving to the Silver Lake Office Complex.
"There was a great need at the Air Force base when we got there," president Jack Varselona says. "A lot of people wanted to get degrees and couldn't, so we went to them. Then we got a lot of civilians coming, too. So we opened it up for the whole population. At the time, there were very few schools dealing with adult populations. It was very successful."
With 20 acres and a newly remodeled facility offering both undergraduate and graduate degree programs, Wilmington College is now looking at the possibility of further growing the campus.
The school offers 19 graduate programs and 24 undergraduate programs in Dover, as well as two associate's degrees.
There are 1,800 students today, compared with 400 in 1987, Varselona says. The college has grown 20 percent a year over the past two years.
The expansion reflects the college's dramatic growth in enrollment and Dover's "growing importance as an education destination," says spokeswoman Simone George.
"When the area experienced a large amount of growth, a change in demographics occurred," George says. "More businesses came to Dover thanks to the work of [former Mayor James Hutchison]."
Susan Jackson, 42, a retired Air Force veteran, earned her bachelor's degree in general studies from Wilmington College and is currently working on her master's degree in community counseling.
She describes Dover as college friendly, though still more of a military or legislative town than a college town.
"When I drive my son up to UD for lacrosse practice, you can tell that's a college town," Jackson says. "There's a main drag with a bookstore, café and Internet coffee shops. That ambience is there. The last thing Dover needs is another chain restaurant. As the state capital, it could be more of a college town."
She says the city should connect U.S. 13 with bridges or bypasses so students can walk from Wilmington College across the street to Delaware Tech, sharing facilities and interacting more with the other students.
State Representative Nancy Wagner of North Dover, the new director of community relations at DSU, says the idea of a "college town" has changed because of the growing number of non-traditional students who don't require college amenities.
"A tremendous number of people going to a college or university today are older students," she says. "You might see more undergraduates in New Castle County. You have to look and see what population these schools cater to. We don't have a college right on Main Street downtown. I think the market goes where the need is. There is a tremendous number of commuters or older students who are not going to be out dating at night. They are going home to work or take care of their kids. The traditional-age colleges offer their own social activities."
Delaware Tech's Terry Campus is the college's smallest of its four locations, with 2,745 students. But the student body grew by 7 percent this fall over last year, says Lisa Hastings, campus spokeswoman. Spring semester enrollment in Dover was projected to grow by 6.5 percent.
"Some of the students had to park on the grass this semester because the campus is running out of parking spaces," Hastings says.
In the near future, the college plans to realign the loop road around campus and build 96 additional parking places, a 75,000-square-foot health and science building, and a student support services building.
"We expect the number of students to keep going up," she says.
The Terry Campus opened in 1973, making it the third-oldest college in Dover after DSU and Wesley. Delaware Tech also has campuses in Wilmington, Stanton and Georgetown.
The University of Delaware opened its parallel program (now called the Associate in Arts Degree program) on the Delaware Tech campus in the late 1970s. It offers qualified applicants the opportunity to pursue a UD associate's degree by taking UD courses at UD Academic Centers on DelTech campuses.
Dan Simpson, vice president and Terry Campus director, attributes DelTech's growth to several things: population growth, an increase in articulation agreements with the other colleges and the Student Excellence Equals Degree program, which provides a free education for full-time students pursuing an associate's degree at Delaware Tech or the associate's program at UD.
Officials from Goldey-Beacom College in Pike Creek Valley and Widener University School of Law in Wilmington say they have no plans to expand their campuses to Dover.
"There's no immediate need," says Gary Wirt, vice president at Goldey-Beacom College. "Our business education needs are fairly met by the schools that plan to be there or are already there. We have plans to expand where we're at." D