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GSU arrives at latest ‘pivotal moment’
Student success the focus in competitive environment
Georgia Southern interim president Shelley Nickel addresses the university community during Convocation at the Performing Arts Center Wednesday.

Georgia’s largest university south of metro Atlanta and now with three campuses, Georgia Southern University will focus on student success while facing increasing competition, its interim president and its new provost said during Wednesday’s convocation ceremonies.

Shelley C. Nickel, who took the helm in the interim role July 1, became the first Georgia Southern president to launch an academic year with “State of the University” speeches to faculty and staff assemblies in two different cities. The Statesboro Herald covered the 9:30 a.m. version at the Performing Arts Center on the Statesboro campus. Nickel then traveled to Savannah for the 1:30 p.m. ceremony on the Armstrong campus, and at least one of the convocations was to be streamed online for the Liberty campus in Hinesville.

She gave a brief history of the university’s pivotal moments and proclaimed that another has now arrived. In fact, “A Pivotal Moment” was printed on the program cover. She congratulated the faculty and staff on the work of consolidation that made the former Armstrong State University part of the new Georgia Southern and called it “done.”

“Now we get to ask, what’s next?” Nickel said. “In our inaugural year as a consolidated university, Georgia Southern enters a rapidly changing landscape in higher education.”

Through technology, students can attend universities and colleges “around the globe,” with more choices than ever before, forcing the university to change how it interacts with potential students, she said.


Competing for students

On a big screen behind her, the slide show switched to a chart with trend lines for the number of high school students graduating in different regions of the country. The source was a series of annual studies by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. 

“The latest ‘Knocking at the College Door’ study reports the number of high school graduates across the country will peak and then decline,” Nickel said. “Nationally, some states are already facing steep drops, forcing them to take drastic action to stem the enrollment losses.”

The trend lines showed the number of high school graduates plateauing around 2024-25 and then declining until 2031-32. But the graph also showed the South as having more graduates than other regions. So the picture for colleges in the South is brighter, but there are still serious implications for Georgia Southern as universities across the country create incentives to attract students from this region, Nickel said.

“About a third of our first class comes from five counties in metro Atlanta, but with Wisconsin, Illinois and New York universities trying to recruit the same students, we need to be ready,” Nickel said. “How will Georgia Southern navigate this landscape and seize the opportunities?”


Student Success Plan

With consolidation, the university is investing $4.1 million in a Student Success Plan, which she said “will supplement and expand upon our current programs, services and support systems for our students.” Some of this money is being used to hire professional, staff advisors to work with students in an effort to keep them on track for graduation.

The University System of Georgia is also investing $2.5 million in a regional academic plan for Georgia Southern, she noted. This is targeted to jobs in high demand with businesses and industries in the region.

So, Georgia Southern is now offering a Bachelor of Business Administration program in economics, a BBA in logistics, a bachelor’s degree in public health and a Master of Business Administration program on the Armstrong campus. Nickel described this as “doing things to get us into the Savannah market in a big way.”

To help bolster enrollment, the Armstrong and Liberty campuses can now offer waivers of out-of-state status, she said. This allows approved out-of-state students to pay lower in-state tuition. Georgia Southern’s efforts to attract out-of-state students are aimed primarily at South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and especially Florida, with its larger population.

“All of these plans and proposals are filtered through the lens of student success, the most important goal of everything that we do at this university,” Nickel said. “Most important in student success is the work our faculty and staff. … Our faculty not only provide strong academics to students but also serve as mentors, helping them find opportunities and make decisions about careers.”


Provost speaks

Carl Reiber, Ph.D., Georgia Southern’s new provost and vice president for academic affairs, also talked about student success during his remarks. He served as master of ceremonies and spoke before Nickel.

“That’s going to be one of my main focuses over the next couple of years, really working on student success,” Reiber told the faculty and staff.

Part of the effort will be to move students “forward at a faster pace, a more streamlined pace so that they can get to where they want to be quicker and more efficiently” without lowering standards, he said.

Both Reiber and Nickel said that professors and other teaching faculty play an important role as mentors to students. But the new professional advisors will work to keep students on track, even reaching out to new students before they arrive with information about the university’s expectations, Reiber said.

Some new courses, including a first-year course for all students, “where they get  success elements so they better understand how to study and how to engage with the  faculty and they understand the expectations of their major,” are also included in the $4.1 million Student Success Plan, he said in an interview.


Not quite 27,000?

Fall-semester classes begin Monday, and students continue to arrive. In her speech, Nickel referred to Georgia Southern as a 27,000-student university. Officials were using that number, based on the Statesboro campus’ peak fall 2016 enrollment of 20,673 students and Armstrong State’s then-enrollment of 7,103, months before consolidation took effect Jan. 1.

But the actual enrollment remained a little less than 27,000 Wednesday, as Georgia Southern experiences the dip that University System of Georgia officials have come to expect of universities just after consolidation, Nickel said in an interview. More students are expected to register for classes this week, she added.

“We might be slightly down, particularly on the Armstrong campus. …,” she said. “I expect this to be a blip and next year we’ll be back stronger than ever.”

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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