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East Georgia College enrollment falls

Colleges throughout the state are being confronted this fall with an issue they haven’t faced in several years.
    More than half the schools in the University System of Georgia are teaching fewer students this semester than a year ago, according to preliminary data released by the system.
    State colleges and universities are projecting the end to more than a decade of record-setting enrollment figures when final numbers are released next month.
    According to early projections, the system enrolled 312,600 students by Sept. 6, a 1.1 percent drop from the 316,095 a year prior. It is only the third time since 1978 enrollment has dropped.
    Five schools, including Swainsboro and Statesboro’s East Georgia State College, could face a more than 10 percent decrease in enrollment. The others: Fort Valley State University and Bainbridge, Georgia Perimeter, and Gordon State colleges.
    “These are preliminary numbers and there could still be some changes, but we know we have had a decrease,” East Georgia spokeswoman Elizabeth Gilmer said. “We all hope that this is not signifying any kind of declining enrollment period but is just a blip on the radar.”
    Gilmer said the fall slump in enrollment is the college’s first since 2003.
    That decline was due to the possession of a satellite facility being shifted to another college, and “was not nearly as much of a drop as we’re seeing now,” she said.
    Early figures show East Georgia’s enrollment falling from 3,549 in fall 2011 to 3,131 — a drop of more than 12 percent.
    Officials say it is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint all reasons for the declines – which, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, also have been seen at public colleges in Ohio, Florida, and California - but they are pointing their fingers to a few factors.
    “As we see it, the decrease is due to three basic things: there have been changes in financial aid, changes in admissions requirements and, of course, the economy in general is down,” Gilmore said. “In the beginning, when an economy is first on the downturn, you’ll see an increase in the amount of people going back to school. But once you get three or four years into it, you’ll see fewer and fewer people with the funding to come.”
    Changes to financial aid, such as the federal Pell Grant and Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, have reduced award payouts to students.
The other culprit, leaders say, is a new system-wide admissions policy that rejects students who need too much remedial help in English or math and redirects them to technical colleges.
    Gilmer said rural schools, such as East Georgia, are being hit the hardest.
    “There are only so many opportunities,” she said. “The economy hits a lot harder in areas where there isn’t any industry, and there’s nothing to fall back on. There are only a certain amount of jobs for people to do.”
    Drops in enrollment come at an already trying time for schools, as they deal with successive years of major state budget cuts — $54 million this year and $54 million next year.
    Schools have traditionally used tuition revenue from higher enrollments to help adjust to cuts. That will not be an option for several colleges this year.
    Gilmore said an even tighter budget will not affect East Georgia’s mission.
    “We hope this is just a single-semester drop. But regardless, our focus will remain on the graduation and progression of our students,” she said. “Even though we are very concerned with enrollment and providing an opportunity to all deserving students, we are also very committed to college completion for those students currently enrolled.”
    Tuition is not expected to increase immediately to offset lower enrollment, but fewer dollars to spend could force the elimination of some college staff positions.
“If the students are not there, then institutions will have to consider fewer personnel and reduced program offerings,” said system spokesman John Millsaps said.
    Of the 35 colleges in the University System of Georgia, 15 increased enrollment this fall, according to early numbers. 
    Figures show Georgia Southern University increasing fall enrollment by about 2 percent — 469 students.

    Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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