He and his classmates are among the nearly 105,000 students enrolled this fall in one of Georgia’s 22 public technical colleges, where students have returned in droves after the COVID-19 pandemic hit hands-on learning programs hard.
Student counts at the Technical College System of Georgia dropped by nearly 10% from fall 2019, just before the pandemic, to fall 2021. But by midterm this fall, numbers were up 10.6% from the same point a year ago. Several schools, including Gwinnett Tech, are on track to set record enrollment highs.
“This is our Uber moment. There’s a disruption that’s been coming, but I believe it’s really going to start coming more into fruition of people just wanting to figure out the quickest and least costly way they can get into something that amounts to a great career,” said D. Glen Cannon, president of Gwinnett Tech, which saw a 16.7% enrollment jump so far this fall.
The University System of Georgia, a separate agency that oversees 26 public colleges including major research universities, reported a 3% rebound this fall after a two-year decline. There, the sector with the biggest gain is state colleges, which, like technical colleges, offer local access and associate-level degrees.
Nationally, enrollment at community colleges and other two-year schools is recovering after a significant pandemic drop. Two-year schools gained 4.4% this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which noted that students are gravitating to shorter-term credentials.
“I think we’ve always seen ourselves as a first choice, but I believe we’re at a point in our history where our state and our community and our leaders see us as a first choice,” said Greg Dozier, the Technical College System’s commissioner.
Dozier expects enrollment to continue to grow to meet the demand for a skilled workforce. About 7% of students enroll in a Georgia technical college just after graduating from high school. His goal is to double that.
Students have been drawn to technical colleges in part because of the HOPE Career Grant, which offers no-cost tuition for programs that provide training for jobs in high-demand fields such as aviation, automotive and construction technologies; practical nursing; and early childhood care.
Enrollment in associate degree nursing programs rose 15% this fall compared to a year ago, along with an 18% increase in federally certified aviation programs and 17% jump in cyber studies.
Technical colleges also expanded online learning by sharing instructors so students, particularly those at rural schools, could take courses they might not otherwise be able to, officials said.
Karissa Hodges, 24, of Snellville said the two-year automotive program she began at Gwinnett Tech this fall is a better fit for her career goals than attending a four-year college. She’s a mechanic in the Army National Guard and aims to eventually become a master technician.
“A technical school is more hands-on. You learn more, and it helps you with your certifications,” she said.
Cannon believes concerns about mounting student debt — borrowers are now making federal loan repayments after a more than three-year pandemic-era pause — made parents, students and employers take a closer look at lower-cost, quicker-to-completion technical colleges.
Gwinnett Tech’s transfer student enrollment doubled this semester, and Cannon said most of those students came from traditional, four-year colleges. This semester, the school also began enrolling international students, and almost immediately after getting its visa program approval received 250 applications, many from Canada and South Korea, he said.
A few years ago, Gwinnett Tech enrolled about 300 cybersecurity students. This fall, they have more than 850, Cannon said. The school, which has its main campus in Lawrenceville, also is focused on automotive programs and is preparing to train students to install and maintain electric vehicle charging stations.
At Central Georgia Technical College, midsemester enrollment is up nearly 14% from last year, topping 10,700 students. President Ivan H. Allen said that marks the largest enrollment in the history of the school, which has its main campus in Warner Robins plus other sites that serve 11 counties.
High school dual-enrollment numbers have soared in rural counties. The college also responded to students who want a full-college experience, Allen said. The school began offering more night classes. It partnered with a developer to build the first student housing complex, which has about 250 beds and is at capacity. It opened campus health clinics and added mental health counselors, Allen said.
“It is the total package of wraparound services,” he said.
Credit: Jason Getz/AJC
Credit: Jason Getz/AJC
The growth is not without challenges. Allen said it’s difficult to find nursing instructors for Central Georgia’s health care programs. Gwinnett Tech employs more than 500 faculty members and had more than 30 open positions as of mid-October. Officials have said schools struggle to recruit teachers because professionals can earn more working in the private sector than in a classroom. Gwinnett Tech’s secondary campus in Alpharetta needs another building to accommodate the student growth, its president said.
Since high school, Cheek has worked at quick-service oil change shops. This fall, at his mom’s urging, he enrolled at Gwinnett Tech. He expects that completing the two-year auto program will lead to a better-paying job, maybe even fixing electric vehicles.
“That’s the whole point, just trying to make more money,” he said.