How some Georgia colleges are bucking the trend of falling enrollments

Enrollment increased at three of Georgia’s top four public research universities, with Georgia Tech leading the way. But in general, the smaller state schools with a regional focus had more to struggle with. Several of Georgia’s private colleges reported growing interest because they were simplifying the application process, a move most of the state’s public schools were also taking.

Experts said higher-paying jobs have attracted would-be students to work over college. The uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is still having an impact.

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Fewer students means tighter budgets because the state system’s funding is enrollment-based. USG officials meet with college leaders to “align their resources with both demand for specific academic programs and their strategic priorities,” according to a system statement. In doing so, they will “use a data-driven approach to find solutions and make the greatest impact for Georgia’s students and taxpayers”.

Chancellor Sonny Perdue put it more bluntly before the Georgia Board of Regents in November: “If you don’t have that much revenue, you’re going to have fewer people.”

Freshman enrollment has declined about 7%, or more than 3,800 students, since the fall of 2020. In the long term, the university system expects fewer high school graduates in Georgia due to lower birth rates.

Over the past five years, student enrollment at the state’s public colleges has declined about 3% to 262,489 students as of this fall. The number of graduates and those in employment increased by 28% during this period, although the increases from 2021 to 2022 were very modest.

A few private schools in Metro Atlanta did well. The President of Oglethorpe said students chose the school because small classes allow them to build relationships with professors that are of value after many have felt disconnected by the pandemic. Its diversity is another attraction. About 40% of students are the first in their families to go to college; 60% are students of color, he said.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Oglethorpe, like many colleges, has dropped the admissions requirement to submit ACT or SAT scores. This change also contributed to an increase in the number of applicants at Emory University and Spelman College.

The past two years have seen the largest pool of applicants in Emory’s history, said John Latting, dean of admissions. Enrollment at the private university rose slightly this fall to 15,909 students.

Many flagship public universities and nationally renowned private colleges have “performed well from an enrollment standpoint,” he said, in recent years. Latting said Emory continues to see greater geographic and racial diversity among prospective students.

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Applications to Spelman have increased nearly 50% since fall 2019, topping 13,600 in the last year. This fall’s enrollment of 2,378 is down slightly from last fall, when numbers skyrocketed due to a large first-grader class.

Spelman officials want to return to their ideal size of 2,100 to 2,200 students, a number based on campus facilities and academic resources.

Photo credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Photo credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Ingrid Hayes, Spelman’s senior vice president of enrollment management, has noted an “increased interest” due to the school’s successful graduates, academic reputation and “sense of belonging”. National conversations about social issues also led some students to prioritize attending historic black colleges.

“These students grow up when many of them feel compelled to speak up and offer solutions,” Hayes said.

Many of the state’s smaller or regional schools have had enrollment problems. Of the state’s four comprehensive universities — Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State, West Georgia, and Valdosta State — only Kennesaw State saw a slight increase.

In a written statement, President Kathy Schwaig said the wins “reflect our focus on the academic needs of our students and our commitment to providing world-class degrees in areas that are in high demand in the marketplace.”