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Georgia public universities shrink for first time since 2013

File photo from May 2020 shows University of Georgia graduates lining up to take photos at the University of Georgia arch in Athens, Ga. (Joshua L. Jones, Joshua L. Jones)

ATLANTA – After posting years of enrollment growth, Georgia’s public universities saw the number of students dip this fall, driven by declines in undergraduates.

The decrease was in line with national trends, after a year in which the University System of Georgia’s 26 institutions had defied a shrinking number of students nationwide. The system had shown enrollment increases for seven straight years, reaching an all-time high last fall.

Students statewide fell by 0.2% to 340,638, according to numbers released Monday. That almost-flat total conceals a divide in the system, with the biggest and most prestigious institutions still growing, while more and more smaller schools shrink.

The National Student Clearinghouse reported last week that undergraduate enrollment at all colleges nationwide fell 3.2% from a year ago, while enrollment fell 2.3% at public four-year colleges, compared with a 2.1% decrease at Georgia schools. Undergraduate enrollment fell most among sophomores and juniors in Georgia, suggesting more may have dropped out amid the stresses of the pandemic, overcoming the system’s push to keep students on track to degrees.

But graduate enrollment at the Georgia schools rose 7.9%, compared with 2.1% for all public and private universities nationally. The number of high school students taking dual enrollment courses from Georgia schools also rose.

Georgia Tech’s enrollment rose by more than 10.3% to nearly 44,000, as the state’s most prestigious public university continued to see more students flock to its online master’s degree programs. On-campus graduate enrollment also jumped. Georgia Tech accounted for nearly two-thirds of the entire system’s increase in graduate enrollment, and the bump makes it Georgia’s second-largest university.

Georgia Tech also saw increases across its undergraduate student body, a pattern that broke sharply with the rest of the system.

Beyond Georgia Tech, the school posting the second-largest percentage increase was Kennesaw State University, which saw the number of students rise 4.4% to nearly 43,000. Spokesperson Tammy DeMel said nonwhite students make up a majority of Kennesaw State’s enrollment for the first time.

The system did not require ACT or SAT test scores for admission last year, which could have made it possible for some students to trade up to more selective schools.

For example, the nine schools in the lowest tier of USG institutions — state colleges such as Dalton State or College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick — saw freshman enrollment decrease this fall by a combined 6.7%. Students at Swainsboro-based East Georgia State College fell 16.2%.

Most schools in the three higher tiers, including all four research institutions, saw freshmen rise. That’s been driven by the state’s expanding population, which has pushed up the number of high school graduates. However, the number of graduating seniors is likely to fall sharply later in the decade, because of a decline in birthrates.

More freshmen wasn’t enough to drive enrollment increases at schools in the second-lowest tier. The nine state universities including Columbus State and Middle Georgia State saw enrollment fall 3.7% overall.