GCU's out-of-state enrollment keeps growing; students tout faith, cost

Incoming students mingle together during the Out-of-State Student Social at Thunderground.

Photos by Ralph Freso

You know it’s a melting pot when a Minnesota native points out this unusual sighting at Grand Canyon University’s Out-of-State Student Social.

“I just saw a Packers fan and a Bears fan talking to each other,” said Ramzi Ali, a freshman from St. Paul, Minnesota, who likes the Vikings among those bitter-rival NFL teams from the Midwest.

Incoming freshman Ramzi Ali shoots a game of pool with friends during the social.

Ali joins a growing cadre of GCU students from out of state, and they all had good reasons for coming here.

“Weather,” he said.

But now that he’s been here a couple days, he’s hooked on something else, too.

“I sense a real feeling of community,” he said. “It’s not St. Paul where no one talks to anybody. Everybody here cares about everyone else’s day.”

It’s among many reasons students are migrating to the west Phoenix campus.

In the 2022-23 academic year, 65.9% of traditional ground students are from out-of-state, an increase from 2021-22 (64.2%) and 2020-21 (61%). While the total number of Arizona residents continues to grow on campus (an increase of 4.5% in the last three years), enrollment by students from places such as California (20.6% of out-of-state), Washington (8.3%), Colorado (6.6%), Minnesota (3.4%), Oregon (2.9%) and nearly every other state has risen, too.

This year, 70.4% of the incoming class of traditional ground students are from out-of-state.

“A private, Christian, affordable education continues to be appealing to out-of-state students,” said Sarah Boeder, Executive Vice President of Operations. “For many, GCU is more affordable than their in-state options.

“Families are initially attracted to the price, but ultimately it’s the hands-on learning, academic focus and spirited Christian community that brings them to GCU.”

There is plenty of room in the newly expanded Thunderground.

It was spirited at the social on Tuesday afternoon in a packed Thunderground, an event put on by the Associated Students of GCU.

“A lot of the (Welcome Week) events are at the end of the week with a lot of people there, and it can be overwhelming,” said ASGCU President Camden Marasco. “This is designed to get people to interact with each other before academics start.”

He said students like him, from Tennessee and other states, come for the weather and affordability but also see an active campus, full of fun events and spirited athletics and a unity that is baked in by the desert sun.

“Someone asked me how many Havocs there were,” Marasco said of the name associated with wild, enthusiastic fans at sporting events. "I was like, ‘We are all Havocs.’”

Marasco even has a big map in his apartment, and fellow students who visit know he has a marker to sign the state where they come from. “Every state but Connecticut is full.”

That was the question most heard while walking through the crowd as students stood in groups to chat: Where you from?

Sometimes, people could tell from the accent.

Kaydence Colon (right) and Ramsey Ahpuck, both freshman students from Hawaii, find common ground during the social.

There was Chris Stemmle, a freshman just arriving from Long Island.

“I was tired of the weather in New York – winters 40 and summers 90s with humidity. I’m like, why not?” he asked with a ya-know-what-I-mean shrug. “I have family down here. Why not?”

Many were drawn by the Christian atmosphere.

“Faith is not pushed on you, but if you want it, it’s there,” said Olivia McFadden from Dallas.

“I really enjoy growing in my faith, but it’s not forced like at some Christian colleges,” added Neil Oberg from Chicago. “There are many ways to practice Christianity, not just one that is forced.”

Freshmen Sarah Christensen of Pittsburgh (right) and Ashlyn Janzen, from the San Luis Obispo area in California, play cornhole.

They came from Wyoming and Georgia, from Las Vegas and California, munching on cookies or playing billiards or cornhole in the air-conditioned student hangout space.

Yes, they all said it was hot, really hot, this time of year.

“I’m dying,” said Kaydence Colon of Hawaii. “I haven’t eaten in two days.”

Turns out, she was also a little nervous coming into a new place as a freshman but was glad to have Shelby Dozier of California sitting by her side in the corner, just so they could observe the mingling first.

Within the next half-hour, Colon was seen chatting with other students and joining them for a game of pool.

Whatever state they came from, the students were starting to feel at home.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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