LOWELL -- New academic and dorm buildings, higher placement on academic rankings, rising achievement levels of incoming students -- they all show how UMass Lowell has grown both in size and prestige in recent years.
But the biggest growth is taking place among the university's graduate studies, where each year a new record number of students study for their master's or doctorate degrees. They're also increasingly higher-achieving.
Graduate enrollment at UMass Lowell has increased by 53 percent since the fall of 2007, rising to 4,188 for the fall of 2013. That outpaces the university's overall growth, which itself has soared by 45 percent.
The university now has the eighth-largest graduate enrollment among schools in Massachusetts, up from 10 the prior year, according to a list published last month by the Boston Business Journal.
"It is, to some extent, 'if you build it, they will come,'" said Donald Pierson, the vice provost for graduate education. "And that's how it's happened."
The university is also quickly adding new areas of graduate studies.
In the 2012-13 school year alone, UMass Lowell was approved for 11 new graduate degrees, from a master's in autism studies to a doctorate in criminology to a doctorate in business administration. Four of five more are in line, including a master's in finance, Pierson said.
Among the most high-profile programs is a new Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, which was launched last fall. The terrorism center illustrates well the growth at the university.
It is based in the new $40 million Health and Social Sciences Building and is part of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, which was elevated from a department last year. The center has drawn notable faculty, including director John Horgan, who has written more than 70 publications on terrorism and political violence and previously worked at Penn State, and Mia Bloom, a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Top faculty generally prefer graduate studies, where they can spend more time on research and in a classroom and can work with students on more advanced material, Pierson said. He named Horgan as an example of one.
"To a professor that has a big and active research program, having graduates provides me with a lifeline of the next generation of researchers," Horgan said. The university's rapid growth also drew him from a much larger highly regarded university, where he said he was doing similar work.
"It's going to sound cliché, but I really get a sense that it's the best time to be here," he said.
Programs at the center receive funding from agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Justice, and faculty have done terrorism and security briefings at a national level, Horgan said.
For the spring semester, Horgan will lead an internship program with 40 students that will include researching traits of terrorists that could help in judicial sentencing.
A research assistant for the program, 22-year-old graduate student Shaun Walsh of Charlestown, was a UMass Lowell undergraduate who said he chose the university because he was impressed by the quality of the professors. He's never had an instructor he didn't like, he said.
Walsh is working toward a master's in criminal justice and hopes to work in federal law enforcement, particularly in Homeland Security. The research experience is valuable, he said.
"Working as a research assistant is ideal for me personally because I hope to one day teach in the field after my career in law enforcement, and I can point to it as work experience when I begin applying to jobs," Walsh said.
Engineering studies soar
The Francis College of Engineering has seen perhaps the largest graduate-enrollment increase at the university. In a five-year span ending last spring, the number of students seeking a master's in engineering grew by almost 70 percent, and doctorate engineering students grew nearly fourfold -- from only 54 in 2008 to 265 in 2013.
Today's engineering jobs are often more complex, so a fifth year of education can make a major difference, said Joseph Hartman, the dean of the Francis College of Engineering.
"There's a lot of industry in the area that's interested in what we're doing," Hartman said.
Growth feeds on itself, Hartman said. More research dollars attract better graduate students and more top faculty, which can bring in more research funding.
As quickly as UMass Lowell's graduate-student enrollment has increased, there is still some room to grow. Many graduate students don't live in on-campus dorms, and graduate classes are more likely at night or online, so they don't take up valuable classroom space during the busy morning and early afternoon space crunch, said Pierson, the vice provost.
Both need and opportunity fed the graduate-student growth, he said. "I think that's where the gap was."
Shortly after former U.S. Congressman Marty Meehan became chancellor in the summer of 2007, he assembled a team to look at the direction the university was headed, Pierson said. Part of that long-term plan included a larger graduate studies program. Planned growth each year is about 10 percent.
UMass Lowell, where undergrads outnumber graduates by a 2.3-to-1 ratio, still trails the average when it comes to graduate enrollment.
According to a report by The College Board, undergraduate students outnumber graduate counterparts by about 2-to-1 nationally at public schools. At private schools, the ratio is about even.