When she went shopping for colleges, longtime Michigan resident Meghan Hoodhood fell in love with USF St. Petersburg. The tight-knit feel, the smaller classes, the "cute restaurants" within strolling distance — all perfect.
But Hoodhood, 18, wondered if the university catered more to upperclassmen and graduate students. And she worried about making friends.
Then she found out about the dorm.
USF St. Petersburg's one and only residence hall was more spacious than other schools' cramped facilities. And it promised to be brimming with freshmen like herself.
Hoodhood was sold.
The residence hall "made me think (the university) was more freshmen friendly," said Hoodhood, who moved in Friday.
The numbers suggest a lot of new students are getting that impression.
For the first time, the 352-bed residence hall will be at capacity this fall. Meanwhile, the university is expecting its biggest freshman class ever when classes begin Monday.
Those things wouldn't make news in most college towns. But at USF St. Petersburg, they're among the most closely watched ways to gauge how fast the school is evolving from commuter backwater to liberal arts gem.
"Students are beginning to see this campus as a place where they can truly have a traditional collegiate experience," said Kent Kelso, USF St. Petersburg's regional vice chancellor for student affairs.
University officials credit the shift to vision, planning, hard work — and some serendipity.
Among other changes, they marketed the residence hall more aggressively and started a $1,000-a-year scholarship for freshmen. They also did a makeover on how they handle campus visits from prospective students.
Research shows more than 60 percent of students make their college choices based on those visits, Kelso said. But in the past, student tour guides at USF St. Petersburg "pointed out buildings and that was about it."
Now they're trained to know the university programs and services in detail. They're given flash cards so they know the names and faces of administrators — in case they see some while leading tours.
"If you have a campus visitation program that's shallow … you're cutting your own throat," Kelso said. "We changed that."
This year, USF St. Petersburg also turned lemons into lemonade.
Statewide budget cuts forced most state universities to cap enrollment. But with room to spare, USF St. Petersburg was able to absorb students locked out elsewhere.
All the new faces also point to changing demographics. Usually, the vast majority of USF St. Petersburg students were from Pinellas County. This fall, nearly 70 percent of those in the hall are from beyond Pinellas.
Thomas Weigel, an incoming freshman from Fort Lauderdale, said he mainly chose USF St. Petersburg because it had a graphic design program and the Tampa campus where his father went to school did not.
The downtown setting and the residence hall made a difference, too. The seven-story, $18-million building opened in 2006.
A final freshmen count won't be in until Monday. But early evidence points to a record enrollment — nearly 50 percent bigger than last year's number of 223.
The no-vacancy sign is telling, too.
Some 358 students signed contracts to live in the residence hall, compared to 226 who lived there last year. Since that's more than the number of beds, some resident assistants will probably have to share their suites.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.