More students in Georgia’s public university system despite pandemic

Kennesaw State University freshman Kyle Johnson wears a mask as he works on his computer during the first day of classes at Kennesaw State University's main campus in Kennesaw, Monday, August 17, 2020. Kennesaw State's enrollment increased by about 9% this fall. The university has more than 41,000 students this year. Only Georgia State University has a larger enrollment, with about 54,000 students. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Kennesaw State University freshman Kyle Johnson wears a mask as he works on his computer during the first day of classes at Kennesaw State University's main campus in Kennesaw, Monday, August 17, 2020. Kennesaw State's enrollment increased by about 9% this fall. The university has more than 41,000 students this year. Only Georgia State University has a larger enrollment, with about 54,000 students. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

More students are taking classes at University System of Georgia schools this semester, bucking data showing an enrollment decline nationally as many students initially worried about being on campus during the coronavirus pandemic.

Enrollment in the public system’s 26 colleges and universities increased by 2.4% to a record-high 341,485 students, according to a staff report Wednesday to the state’s Board of Regents. Nationally, college enrollment is down 4%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

University System officials said the number of beginning first-year students increased by about 6.5%, to 54,176. First-year student enrollment has declined nationally by 16%, according to the center.

University System officials attributed the overall enrollment increase to more high school graduates from Georgia, its decision not to raise tuition this school year and waiving SAT and ACT test requirements for admission to its schools.

New Georgia Tech students with the assistance of their families begin moving in for the fall semester in Georgia Tech campus on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Georgia Tech's enrollment increased by about 9% this fall, with more students taking graduate courses online. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
New Georgia Tech students with the assistance of their families begin moving in for the fall semester in Georgia Tech campus on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Georgia Tech's enrollment increased by about 9% this fall, with more students taking graduate courses online. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“A lot of students who were originally saying ‘Oh, it’s not worth it to go online' have realized it’s not ideal, but what are your alternatives?” said Doug Shapiro, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s executive director. “You’re not going to find a job in this economy. You’re not going to be able to travel. What else are you going to do?”

University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley told the board a strategic plan approved last year to make college more affordable and help students graduate has positively impacted enrollment and graduation rates.

“We are making good progress, and we have much to look forward to in the coming year, but more work to do,” Wrigley said.

State government leaders have relied more on the University System in recent years to produce graduates for Georgia’s growing workforce, so enrollment increases are important. The University System also receives an ample portion of the state funds budget, about $2.3 billion out of $26 billion, so state leaders are closely watching student outcomes.

Georgia Tech, Kennesaw State and Valdosta State universities had the largest enrollment increases in the system, at about 9% each. There was nearly a 10% systemwide enrollment increase in its graduate programs, much of it from Georgia Tech, officials said.

One area where the University System continues to see an enrollment decline is among students 25 and older. This year’s drop was by about 3%. More older students have taken online college courses in recent years, particularly at for-profit schools. Additionally, the percentage of students in its nine state colleges, mostly located in rural and southern parts of Georgia, declined by 7%. South Georgia State College’s enrollment dropped by nearly 14%, to 2,028 students, the largest decline in the system.

University System officials said families in those areas are being hit especially hard by the pandemic, which is why there may be an enrollment decline at those schools. Officials compared the drop to the national enrollment decline at community colleges, which is nearly 23%, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has found.

Shapiro said four-year colleges have become more creative in recruiting community college students by making it easier to transfer credits and leave the two-year schools. Typically, he and others say, more students enroll at community colleges during an economic downturn, so the size of the decline is surprising.

“It’s completely counter to the expectations,” he said.

Technical College System of Georgia schools, which offer training programs that may draw more adult workers, have not completed their enrollment count for the fall semester.

Georgia State University first-year students Hannah Johnson (left) and Akudo Echebelem (right), both of Macon, travel from their Piedmont North student housing building during the first day of classes at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Georgia State has 53,743 students this fall, the largest enrollment of any university in the state. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Georgia State University first-year students Hannah Johnson (left) and Akudo Echebelem (right), both of Macon, travel from their Piedmont North student housing building during the first day of classes at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Georgia State has 53,743 students this fall, the largest enrollment of any university in the state. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

University System officials were pleased the data showed a slight increase in enrollment among Black and Hispanic students, by 5,730 students combined, although undergraduate enrollment has declined nationally among those groups. White student enrollment systemwide declined by 526 students. Asian student enrollment rose by 2,448 students.

University System of Georgia enrollment

Semester Student Enrollment

Fall 2020 - 341,485

Fall 2019 - 333,507

Fall 2018 - 328,712

Fall 2017 - 325,203

Fall 2016 - 321,549

Source: University System of Georgia

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