Georgia Southern University has slowed, but not yet reversed, its enrollment decline. The total headcount of 26,054 students this fall is 1.3% fewer students than the fall 2018 enrollment of 26,408.
In the previous 12 months, during which consolidation brought the former Armstrong State University campuses into the Georgia Southern brand on Jan. 1, 2018, the decline had been 3.8%, from 27,459 students in fall 2017.
With that drop following previous losses at both the Statesboro campus and the Armstrong campus in Savannah, both tuition and state funding took a hit, prompting the elimination of 195 vacant faculty and staff jobs for this fiscal year.
So Georgia Southern’s administrators are eager to reverse the trend, and for now are glad to see the decline apparently bottoming out.
“What I think we do also have to remember is that this wasn’t an enrollment decline on either campus as a singular result of consolidation,” said Dr. Scot Lingrell, Georgia Southern’s vice president of enrollment management. “Both campuses had been in a slight enrollment decline for about six years prior to consolidation, and so this actually is good news in that we are slowing that enrollment decline.”
Lingrell arrived in his current job April 1, the same day that Dr. Kyle Marrero started as the university’s new president. Both came here from the University of West Georgia, where Marrero was president and Lingrell was vice president of student affairs and enrollment management.
The University System of Georgia’s fall 2019 enrollment report, released earlier this week, shows that a dozen universities and colleges in the system experienced greater one-year enrollment declines than Georgia Southern did. In fact, while the university system trumpeted a 1.5% increase in enrollment statewide, to 333,507 students, most of the growth was concentrated at a few institutions, including some of the largest.
Georgia Southern remains the fifth-largest university in the system. The three largest are Georgia State University, with 53,619 students after 1.5% growth, the University of Georgia, with 38,920 students after 0.7% growth , and Kennesaw State University, with 37,807 students after 6.7% growth.
Fourth-largest Georgia Tech posted the system’s biggest one-year enrollment gain, 11.5%, and now has 36,489 students.
But, of the 26 colleges and universities, 15 have fewer students this fall than last, including 11 of the 12 smallest schools.
In Georgia Southern’s region, East Georgia State College showed a 6.8% decline, to 2,741 students, and Savannah State University’s fall enrollment dropped 9.5%, to 3,688 students. Atlanta Metropolitan State College, now the smallest school in the university system, had the sharpest drop, 15.7%, to 1,844 students.
Last year, when the Statesboro Herald requested a breakdown of enrollment at Georgia Southern’s Statesboro, Armstrong and Liberty campuses, the university also provided the number of students enrolled exclusively in online classes as a separate “campus” for the first time. This week, Georgia Southern officials released a list of enrollment counts at the four “campuses” retroactive to fall 2011.
The headcount of online-only students surged 12.2%, from 1,798 students in fall 2018 to 2,017 students this fall. Even online enrollment had dipped slightly the previous year, from 1,816 students in fall 2017, but that was after a steeper rise, from 1,657 students in 2016. Georgia Southern’s online enrollment, retroactively combined with Armstrong’s, has more than doubled, from 951 students in fall 2011 to the 2,017 students in fall 2019.
So, growth in online enrollment has improved Georgia Southern’s overall enrollment picture. The combined student headcount at the three brick-and-mortar campuses was 24,037 this fall, down from 24,560 students in fall 2018, a 2.1% decrease. But with online enrollment included, the decline was limited to 1.3%.
Graduate students make up much of the growth in online courses, Lingrell noted.
“We still are looking to increase undergraduate fully online programs, and that will be happening in the future,” he said. “But in terms of the overall growth, that is a way that people are wanting to engage with us, and certainly we are enhancing that as much as we can.”
From fall 2018 to fall 2019, enrollment at the brick-and-mortar Statesboro campus edged down 1.1%, from 18,449 students to 18,252. Meanwhile, enrollment at the Armstrong campus in Savannah declined further, from 5,610 students last fall to 5,281 this fall, or almost 5.9%.
Enrollment at the Liberty campus in Hinesville increased by three students, from 501 students to 504 this fall, or 0.6%. After steady growth from 208 students in 2011 to 528 in 2017, enrollment at this single-building campus had dipped 5.1 % percent in the consolidation year.
With the online students separated out, enrollment at the Statesboro campus peaked fall semester 2012, when 19,421 students were physically present, and has since declined about 6%.
In fall 2016, a few months before the intended consolidation was announced, the Armstrong in Savannah on-campus enrollment was 6,636 students, and has declined 20% since then. But in fall 2016, Armstrong’s on-campus enrollment was already 8.9% less than in 2011, ignoring a spike in enrollment to 7,744 students in 2013.
Georgia Southern’s new overall strategic plan has been in use since the start of the academic year in August. When Marrero arrived in April, he also identified the creation of a separate, strategic enrollment plan and a marketing plan as top priorities.
While recovering from declines in the recent past, the university faces a near future when population trends mean that colleges nationwide will be competing for fewer high school graduates as incoming freshmen.
“We are trying to enhance all of the other populations: military-connected students, transfer students, international students, dual-enrollment students and graduate students,” Lingrell said.
The enrollment and marketing plans are expected to be complete and fully vetted by next spring, but an “intermediate enrollment plan” now exists in draft form, Lingrell said. It includes specific recruitment techniques for each of those populations, in addition to guidance for reaching high school students in different geographic areas.
Technologies such as “GUS bot,” an artificial intelligence personality that answers questions from prospective students, are being deployed.
Georgia Southern officials are also looking at ways to increase the number of full-time students. The numbers reported here are total headcounts, but state funding is based on credit hours.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.