Concern over enrollment drop at Georgia colleges

More than half the schools in the University System of Georgia are teaching fewer students this fall than last year, according to preliminary data provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Final figures are not expected until next month, but early data shows the system reversing more than a decade of record-setting enrollment. The drop couldn’t come at a more challenging time.

Georgia colleges are grappling with another round of state budget cuts — $54 million this year and $54 million next year — because of the struggling economy. In the past schools used additional tuition revenue from higher enrollments to soften the cuts. That’s not an option for many campuses this year.

That could force colleges to eliminate more positions.

“If the students are not there, then institutions will have to consider fewer personnel and reduced program offerings,” system spokesman John Millsaps said.

Chancellor Hank Huckaby has told college presidents they must make some tough decisions.

Colleges already proposed a series of cuts and layoffs in response to state-ordered budget cuts and presidents didn’t immediately anticipate other cuts solely because of enrollment declines.

Still, some said enrollment had to level off.

“We cannot grow at double-digits indefinitely,” said Rob Watts, interim president of Georgia Perimeter College. The school gained more than 11,000 students over the past decade but dropped this fall.

The university system has warned colleges about the drop for more than a year. While the system gained about 100,000 students over the past decade, the rate of increase slowed recently.

The system enrolled 312,600 students by Sept. 6, a 1.1 percent drop from the 316,095 a year prior, according to early projections. It is only the third time since 1978 that enrollment dropped.

Five schools dropped by more than 10 percent: Fort Valley State University and Bainbridge, Georgia Perimeter, East Georgia State and Gordon State colleges.

Millsaps said the system can’t pinpoint the exact reasons for the enrollment decline. Officials placed much of the blame on the weak economy and changes to financial aid programs such as the federal Pell Grant and Georgia’s HOPE scholarship that reduced award payouts for some recipients.

Rural Georgia schools are particularly sensitive to the struggling economy, East Georgia spokeswoman Elizabeth Gilmer said.

It remains to be seen whether the drop is a one-time blip or the start of a new trend. Similar enrollment drops have been seen at public colleges in Ohio, Florida, California and elsewhere.

Another culprit in Georgia is a new systemwide admissions policy that rejects students who need too much remedial help in English or math. That drove the declines at “access” colleges that emphasize two-year programs and have less rigorous entrance requirements. About 2,500 students were blocked from Georgia Perimeter because of the rule.

The system implemented the new admission rule because students who need extensive remedial lessons are less likely to graduate.

It’s too soon to say whether the rule will be reconsidered, but Millsaps said the system was already “committed to reviewing the policy” to determine if it had too many unintended consequences.

Students shouldn’t expect schools with lower enrollment to immediately raise tuition. The state Board of Regents sets tuition rates, and they are tied more to state funding, which is why the regents don’t set them until after the Legislature approves the budget.

Jasmine Ballard is among the Georgia students who decided they couldn’t afford college anymore. Ballard, 20, didn’t return to Augusta State and is instead acting and working. She plans to return to college some day, but didn’t want to take out any more loans now.

“It was frustrating to take out loans and pay for college when I truly had no desire to go,” Ballard said. “I was pressured to go to college because that’s what you do right after high school, but I’m just not ready yet.”

When the university system adopted the new admissions rules, many assumed the denied students would attend the Technical College System of Georgia instead. Technical students can use HOPE to pay for remedial classes, an option not permitted in the university system.

While some technical college presidents say they’re seeing more students in general education classes, system spokesman Mike Light said it’s too early to tell if it was caused by the university system’s new rules.

Harrescia Hopkins, a student at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, said she’s seeing more former Georgia Perimeter students on campus. Like those new students, Hopkins wound up at the technical college a couple of years ago because she was unable to pass remedial classes.

“If I’m honest, it probably makes more sense to be at the technical college,” Hopkins, 24, said. “It’s cheaper and we can get more help.”

Georgia’s public colleges are working to improve student success and graduation rates as part of a charge from Gov. Nathan Deal to produce a more educated workforce.

The university system’s enrollment decline won’t hamper colleges’ ability to meet the state’s needs, Millsaps said. The goal isn’t to enroll more students, but to graduate more of the students that do enroll, he said.

Gary McGaha, president of Atlanta Metropolitan State College, said he didn’t know if the college would ever have double-digit enrollment increases again. But he said the college can’t let enrollment slip.

“We sit in the educational spine of the city,” he said. “We are surrounded by underserved students who deserve the opportunity to succeed in college.”

Atlanta Metro reported a 6.4 percent enrollment decline under the system’s preliminary figures. McGaha said the final figures will show an increase because it will include students who registered for programs that started later in the semester.

Watts said Georgia Perimeter will see a decline, but it won’t be as large as the 13 percent in the preliminary figures because the college registered additional students throughout September. He attributed the drop to the economy and new admission rules — not the overspending that caused a $25 million budget shortfall.

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