At first glance, the number seems unexciting, 0.1 percent growth in Georgia Southern University’s enrollment, from 20,516 students in fall semester 2013 to 20,542 this fall, a gain of just 26 students.
But it is a change in direction after a 57-student, 0.3 percent decrease in enrollment the previous year, from the peak so far of 20,574 students in 2012. And while the University System of Georgia saw a 1.1 percent enrollment growth overall, 13 of its 31 colleges and universities have fewer students this fall than a year ago.
“Any increase today in higher education is good, quite frankly,” said Dr. Teresa Thompson, Georgia Southern’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. “If you look at the demographics of the country, students just weren’t born to keep up with the numbers that we had previously.”
The 2013 and 2014 numbers are from the university system Board of Regents’ recently released Semester Enrollment Report, available at www.usg.edu/research.
Since the 2008 recession, the economy has been blamed for both increases and declines in college enrollment. But a halt in growth at Georgia Southern and a decline at East Georgia State showed up only after the economy had begun to recover. Meanwhile, Georgia’s state government changed the HOPE Scholarship rules in 2011, raising GPA requirements for full tuition and eliminating coverage of books and fees.
But Thompson said the HOPE changes were not a big factor at Georgia Southern. Instead, she cited a decline in the number of Americans reaching college age after previous peaks.
“You go through cycles of this, but we had been watching it for a couple of years and started making predictions that our enrollment would be stable for the next few years because of the fact that there are just fewer students out there to recruit,” she said.
Indeed, the U.S. birth rate has been declining for decades, with occasional years of increases. The “Age and Sex Composition” brief from the 2010 census showed the U.S. population growing faster in older age brackets, as people born during previous baby booms age, than among younger people. From 2000 to 2010, U.S. population growth in the 18-44 age bracket was just 0.6 percent, which included immigration as well as people born here.
East Georgia State College, however, previously experienced a decline in enrollment out of proportion to the population trends. After a 14.3 percent drop in 2012 and a 3 percent drop in 2013, East Georgia State’s enrollment grew by 1.9 percent this year.
The college’s enrollment, including both the Swainsboro and the Statesboro campuses, had totaled 3,063 students in fall 2010, rising to 3,435 students in fall 2011, and declining to 2,944 in fall 2012. The new Board of Regents report shows East Georgia State’s enrollment as 2,857 last fall and 2,910 this fall.
East Georgia State’s staff has fought hard for the rebound, and hopes to see it continue, said Elizabeth Gilmer, the college’s director of external affairs.
“We worked really, really hard to get enrollment back up this year,” Gilmer said. “We made a lot of personal contacts, we made a lot of phone calls, did everything we possibly could to help students get through the process, and it paid off.”
Factors Gilmer believes contributed to the previous drop include changes in state requirements for learning support courses and the availability of financial aid, she said.
The college’s enrollment had grown back in 2008-2009, she observed. In fact, growth for those two years totaled more than 30 percent, as seen in the Regents’ archived reports. College enrollment tends to grow early in an economic downturn, followed by a cyclical decline, Gilmer said.
“But rather than face that again, it was all hands on deck this summer and early fall to get everything back headed in the right direction,” she said.
Besides efforts to assist students through the enrollment process, East Georgia created its own needs-based grants, lining up money from private donors and securing $15,000 for this from the University System of Georgia Foundation. At a school where tuition and fees total less than $2,000 a semester, a few hundred dollars can make a big difference, Gilmer said.
“That helped a lot because there are a lot of students, especially in an access school, that will end up not being able to come because of $300 or $400,” she said. “It’s not the big amount that makes the difference; it’s not the tuition. It’s that little bit that’s going to put them over the edge and keeps them from being able to buy their books or pay a fee.”
The new funding helped 39 students attend East Georgia, she said.
Meanwhile, Georgia Southern is trying to ensure the stability of its current enrollment levels by recruiting students from new areas of the country. One focus is to the north along the Interstate 95 corridor, Thompson said.
The university has a number of alumni in the Washington D.C. area, where it is trying to attract students from Maryland and Virginia, and is also reaching out the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area. A GSU recruiter spent about a month there this fall, Thompson reported.
“It takes a while to establish yourself in some new areas, but we realize that if we want to grow, we can’t just do the normal recruiting we’ve done within the regional area, including South Carolina and Florida, all those. That’s probably not going to be enough,” she said.
Together, the 31 University System schools enrolled 312,936 students this semester, up from 309,469 last fall, according to the Board of Regents report. A news release quoting University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby called the growth modest but noted that it reversed a two-year decline.
“While our fall 2014 enrollment is encouraging, we still have much work ahead,” Huckaby said. “We must stay focused on our Complete College Georgia initiative, continue to recruit and retain students, and fully support them through their completion of college.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.