Georgia Southern University’s enrollment dropped by 1,051 students, from a total of 27,459 in fall 2017, including what was then Armstrong State University, to 26,408 for fall semester 2018, which concluded last week.
The consolidation of Armstrong’s two campuses into the Georgia Southern brand was well underway in fall 2017, but formally took effect last Jan. 1. So fall 2018 was the first time the consolidated three-campus “new Georgia Southern” started an academic year.
A dip in enrollment often – but not always – occurs with university and college consolidations, as interim GS President Shelley C. Nickel has said. In her prior role as the University System of Georgia’s executive vice chancellor for strategy and fiscal affairs, she was involved in other mergers as the state system has reduced from 35 to 26 institutions.
“You know, I think it’s just people getting used to this new entity and perhaps being confused during the year that it’s going through – What’s this going to be like, is this still going to be the same, am I still going to want to go there? – but as you see, we got freshman, and they’re enthusiastic,” Nickel said.
That was in the middle of an interview Wednesday in which she and GS Vice President for Enrollment Management Amy Ballagh, Ed.D., emphasized positive signs and steps to attract more students and keep them until they graduate.
“There are some good things going on underneath it all that I really do want to point out,” Nickel said earlier in the interview. “Our freshman class is actually larger this year than it was last year by over 2 percent, and that’s really good news because that means that new students see the value in this consolidated institution, and they will carry us through for the next couple of years.”
She was referring to the numbers of beginning freshmen only, charted as one of the categories of incoming students. The university system’s Board of Regents’ reports show that Georgia Southern had 2,921 beginning freshmen in fall 2017, when Armstrong State then had 894 beginning freshmen, for a total of 3,815. This fall the consolidated Georgia Southern had 3,900 beginning freshmen, a 2.2 percent increase.
But the increase in incoming freshmen occurred on the Statesboro campus and was not seen on the Armstrong campus, Ballagh said when asked.
The Board of Regents fall report shows enrollment for all 26 university system institutions but does not give a breakdown for Georgia Southern’s three campuses. When asked for separate numbers for each campus, Ballagh and GS Communications Director Jennifer Wise provided a breakdown that also includes a fourth “campus,” the online campus, made up of students who take classes exclusively online.
This breakdown shows the Statesboro campus with 18,499 students this fall, down from 18,721 in fall 2017. The Armstrong campus in Savannah, which had 6,394 students fall semester 2017, was down to 5,610 students fall semester 2018. The Liberty Campus, a commuter campus in one large building in Hinesville, had 528 students in fall 2017 and 501 students in fall 2018. Georgia Southern University’s online campus had 1,798 students in fall 2018, down from 1,816 students in fall 2017.
So, while enrollment at the Armstrong campus fell almost 12.3 percent, the decline at the Statesboro campus was only 1.2 percent. Liberty campus enrollment was down about 5.1 percent and online-only enrollment less than 1 percent.
The online campus category was created to let university officials track students who are taking online courses exclusively and make sure their needs are being met, Ballagh said.
“Because we decided to do that, when we go back historically to look at the data by campus, the Statesboro numbers have online students in them and the Armstrong numbers have online students in them,” she said. “So when separate them out and try to go back year-to-year, we’re no longer comparing apples to apples.”
Unless someone is aware of the change, the new breakdown could give the appearance of a more drastic enrollment decline at the Statesboro campus than actually occurred.
In the fall of 2017, Georgia Southern’s Office of Institutional Research, part of Ballagh’s division, published a summary showing a three-campus breakdown of the then 27,459-student enrollment. The Statesboro campus was shown as having 20,418 students; the Armstrong campus 6,513 students; and the Liberty campus, 528 students.
But as the new way of counting online-only students reveals, just 18,721 students were physically attending classes on the Statesboro campus even then.
Much of the relatively small 1.2 percent decrease in students physically attending at the Statesboro campus resulted from fewer students signing up for graduate school.
“That’s actually something that we expect to see when the economy is good because fewer people come back and enroll in graduate school, so that’s not that unexpected,” Ballagh said.
Besides incoming freshman, dual-enrollment students are another category where Georgia Southern is seeing some specific growth. These are Georgia-resident teenagers taking university classes while still enrolled in high school, with tuition and books provided free by the state.
Georgia Southern had 583 dual-enrolled students this fall, up from 490 in fall semester 2017, a 19 percent increase.
“University-wide we’re up in the numbers there, and we’re continuing to do that,” Nickel said. “I was just talking to the provost about the plans for next fall, and we are really ramping that up so we can be very intentional about creating a pipeline for students to come from high school to Georgia Southern and then stay here and become Eagles and then fly.”
That remark was echoed by another of Nickel’s comments, that although Georgia Southern loves its students, it doesn’t want them to stay forever but to graduate and move on to jobs or further education. After Nickel arrived as interim president last summer, she and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carl Reiber, Ph.D., touted student success as the university’s focus in their convocation speeches launching fall semester.
“Everything that we do is all about student success,” Nickel said Wednesday.
University officials say that money saved by reducing administrative costs and program duplication through consolidation is being spent to add more professional advisers, provide more tutoring and in other efforts to keep students on track for graduation.
Graduation rate up
“We’re seeing increasing numbers of students actually graduating and moving on either through education, continuing at Georgia Southern or elsewhere,” Ballagh said. “So that’s always a good thing.”
Board of Regents’ reports available at www.usg.edu/research show gains for Georgia Southern in graduation rates for students receiving bachelor’s degrees within six years. Georgia Southern’s six-year “institution specific” graduation rate was 46.3 percent for students who started as freshmen in fall 2010 and graduated by summer 2016, but the rate rose to 49.4 percent for students who started in 2012 and graduated by summer 2018.
Comparing the same time periods, the rate for students who started at Georgia Southern and graduated anywhere in the state university system increased from 57.6 percent to 60.3 percent.
New programs, buildings
University system officials hope to see new enrollment growth on the Armstrong and Liberty campuses from health professions, public health and teacher education programs added or expanded there. The new building that will headquarter the Waters College of Health Professions on the Armstrong campus is slated for an early-January opening ceremony.
Meanwhile, Georgia Southern is expanding efforts to lure students from neighboring states, especially to the Armstrong and Liberty campuses. For several years, Armstrong, with regents’ approval, had offered in-state tuition rates to students from South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. This year North Carolina was added and the program extended for Georgia Southern’s Armstrong and Liberty campuses.
It’s a big discount, and it’s not available on the Statesboro campus. For an undergraduate student taking a full load of 15 credit hours fall semester, in-state tuition was $2,665, while out-of-state tuition was $9,406.
“So we’re really excited about that opportunity and we have some really key programs that we think a lot of those students ought to be interested in, especially on the Armstrong campus, which includes all of our health professions programs that are part of our regional focus down there, the public health programs, engineering, business opportunities,” Ballagh said.
But there are no plans for long-term shrinkage on the Statesboro campus, either. The $33.6 million new Interdisciplinary Academic Building opened in September, and Gov. Nathan Deal is slated to be in town Wednesday to help break ground for the $50 million GS Center for Engineering and Research.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.