This weird year, of all years, Georgia Southern University has reversed direction from its previous decline in enrollment, seeing a 3.45% increase from fall 2019, when Georgia Southern had 26,054 students at its three campuses and online, to 26,949 students this fall.
University officials are hailing a 42% surge in the size of the freshman class, from 3,675 first-year students in fall 2019 to a record 5,247 first-year students this fall, as a harbinger of further growth.
“The growth in our freshman class is nothing short of remarkable,” Georgia Southern President Kyle Marrero said in a press release. “We are very pleased with the final figures for fall 2020. This not only shows the result of the work we are doing to attract new students, but it also affirms the expanding reputation of the university, and the ability of our faculty and staff to prepare students for the next chapter in their lives.”
As shown in the state Board of Regents’ fall enrollment report, the other three University System of Georgia schools in Georgia Southern’s bracket also had gains, and Georgia Southern’s increase was not the largest.
Together, the four second-tier “comprehensive” universities, including Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State University, Valdosta State University and the University of West Georgia, grew 6.2% and were the fastest growing bracket of schools in the state University System.
Kennesaw State’s enrollment grew 8.9%, to 41,181 students; Valdosta State‘s grew 9.2%, to 12,304 students; and West Georgia’s grew 1.4%, to 13,149 students this fall.
The top-tier “research” universities – Georgia State, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Augusta University – together showed 2.8% growth. But increases ranged from a tiny 0.2% at already massive Georgia State, which now has 53,743 students, and 0.6% at UGA, now with 39,147 students, to a 9% increase at Georgia Tech, now with 39,771.
Augusta University, which as the home of the Medical College of Georgia is counted in the top tier, grew 3.1%. But with 9,565 students this fall, it remains smaller in enrollment than any of the other first- and second-tier schools. Georgia Southern, although counted in the “comprehensive” second tier, is an R2 Carnegie doctoral research university, and remains the fifth-largest institution in the USG.
In an interview, GS Vice President of Enrollment Management Scot Lingrell said he didn’t know enough about the other institutions to suggest reasons for the rise in the comprehensive universities as a group.
“But I can say for Georgia Southern it certainly is a matter of us working very hard and working through a strategic enrollment plan to do the things necessary to turn our enrollment around, so we’re very positive about that,” he said.
Lingrell did acknowledge one factor that gave the universities a larger pool of eligible students. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of ACT and SAT testing sessions, so the University System of Georgia made the scores optional beginning in March and has since suspended test score requirements through fall semester 2021.
“It did certainly have an impact on the number of students that were eligible to even be admitted, but even in that sense, you know, we still have to attract them,” Lingrell said. “They still have to want to come to Georgia Southern and want to be part of our environment, so therefore our recruitment an enrollment services really made a difference.”
Lingrell arrived in his current job April 1, 2019, the same day that Marrero started as the university’s president. Both came from the University of West Georgia, where Marrero was also president and Lingrell was vice president of student affairs and enrollment management.
One of their first orders of business at Georgia Southern was to halt an enrollment decline. It had begun both at the former Armstrong State University – where it started earlier and went deeper – and at Georgia Southern in Statesboro before Armstrong was consolidated into Georgia Southern at the beginning of 2018.
In fall 2017, Georgia Southern, plus Armstrong, had 27,459 students. Post consolidation, enrollment dropped a further 3.8% to 26,408 students in fall 2018. But by fall 2019, the annual decline had slowed to 1.3%.
Now, the university has attained the 2020 increase while working under an “intermediate” strategic enrollment plan, Lingrell said. Still subject to revision, it was officially launched Jan. 1, but elements were already in use.
A marketing campaign, visible on billboards, TV ads and the internet, is meant to build a new “visual identity” for Georgia Southern. Meanwhile, plans for direct student recruitment had to be adapted to the pandemic.
“We have a full social media and direct recruitment campaign, and again, before COVID, a lot of that was in-person; after COVID, that was mostly virtual,” Lingrell said. “More than half of our recruitment year we were doing all of this virtually and still were able to succeed at the level that we did.”
In addition to tailoring communication campaigns to subgroups of students and fields of study, the university has focused on following up with those who show interest, he said. One state-of-the-art tool for this is an interactive software personality, a bot named Gus, which answers questions from potential students until they enroll and arrive.
Growth by campus
While the Statesboro campus saw 3.2% growth in enrollment, from 18,256 students in fall 2019 to 18,834 this October, the Armstrong campus headcount remained almost unchanged, from 5,278 students in fall 2019 to 5,249 this fall, just 29 fewer.
But after having 538 first-year undergraduates in fall 2019, the Armstrong campus has 895 this fall, a 66.4% increase. Those 895 students are the largest freshman class on that campus in at least six years. There were 846 Armstrong first-year students back in 2015, but only 476 on the campus in 2018.
The influx of first-year students gives the university’s leadership reason to anticipate further growth.
“It certainly does, and the only reason really that we had even that slight decline is because we have a really great graduation rate,” Lingrell said. “When you graduate them out, you have to replace them, and so that is exactly what happened at Armstrong. We have almost replaced them completely, but not quite.”
Overall, the university’s six-year graduation rate last academic year was 53.6%, the highest in more than a decade.
Georgia Southern’s Liberty Campus in Hinesville increased its total enrollment by 3%, from 502 students in fall 2019 to 517 this fall. Meanwhile, the university’s enrollment in online-only programs grew from 2,018 students to 2,356, or 16.7%.
As a whole, the University System of Georgia saw 2.4% growth, from 333,507 students in fall 2019 to 341,485, a new record headcount, in fall 2020.
But of the 26 institutions, 16 had growing enrollments, while the other 10 had declines. Enrollment in the third category, the nine “state” universities, grew by 2.3% overall. But two of them, Savannah State University and Georgia College & State University, saw their enrollments decrease.
Of the nine schools in the smallest size bracket, the state colleges, all but one, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, reported enrollment declines. East Georgia State College’s enrollment dropped 11.9%, from 2,741 students in fall 2019 to 2,415 this semester. A Nov. 7 USG press release referred to the enrollment decline averaging 7% at the state colleges as “consistent with a national trend.”