When Economy Cracked, Many Georgians Cracked the Books

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Two young women in my family attend two-year colleges.  The match is perfect.  One works four days per week at a veterinary hospital and takes classes two days.  The other works three or four days per week in a restaurant and attends school days and evenings.  Not too many years ago the family might have expected these young women would be in four-year schools but two-year schools are the best match for their study needs, work schedules and finances.

My own family is an example of the emphasis on using two-year colleges for exceptional value and what they bring to the table.  Young and increasingly older adults recognize they must have a ticket to get onto the economic game playing field but that ticket does not necessarily mean four years of higher education costs and a piece of higher education parchment.

As it turns out, this is happening all over America.  A new Fact Book Bulletin from the Atlanta – based Southern Regional Education Board says two-year college enrollment grew 38.2 percent between 2005 and 2010 in SREB’s 16 southern states.  Growth was up 30.4 percent nationally.

Georgia two-year colleges achieved the second highest enrollment percentage growth in the nation during the 2010 school year when measured alongside 13 states that enrolled at least 200,000 students.   Georgia enrollment grew 23.9 percent to 221,000 students.  Washington state two-year schools enrollment grew 33.3 percent and is comparably sized at 217,000 students.

Explosive enrollment growth was fueled by many factors.   Two-year schools are leaner, generally less elaborate, don’t occupy lots of pricey-to-maintain real estate, often are better focused on training people for local community jobs, do not have the elaborate cost structures of research universities, are easily accessible to commuter students, are a great required courses option for students who have not made career decisions and they have the capability to provide training required for professions that require certification but less than four years of college.

Technical colleges also became a buffer when the recession devastated the economy.   Adults who lost careers returned to school to upgrade skills or acquire new skills.   That changed the face of who engages inside a public two-year college classroom.  Seventeen percent of Georgia technical college students are at least 40 years old and 25 percent are 31 years or older.

SREB analyzed two-year college enrollment data for all 50 states from reports created by the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics.  Georgia’s 23.9 percent growth rate was the largest among all southern states where annual average growth was 7.6 percent.  Virginia grew 14.1 percent and was comparably sized at 231,000 students.   Kentucky grew 11.8 percent to almost 124,000 enrolled students during the same school year.

In Georgia, the Technical College System enrolled the most students in two-year schools, about 197,000, with the remainder enrolled in two-year colleges operated by the University System.  A spokesman for the technical college system said enrollment has declined since 2010 for at least three reasons; students regained employment, HOPE scholarship changes and a transition from quarters to semesters.  Anticipated total enrollment this year is slightly under 171,000.

Technical College System growth occurred during a period of fiscal challenge, especially for students.  TCSG funding from all sources increased from $436 million to $719 million between 2002 and 2011, but the state share of those dollars decreased from 61.6 percent to 43.4 percent.  Tuition increases were largely responsible for bridging the gap.  Operating funds took an $88.3 million reduction during the four fiscal years that will end next June 30.

As SREB noted in its Fact Book Bulletin, two-year public school enrollment in southern states was almost identical to four-year school enrollment with both systems serving 2.8 million students.  The trend has been moving toward nearly identical student populations for decades.   In the year 2000 four-year colleges still enrolled about 400,000 more students annually, but that gap has vanished.

Not surprisingly, the southern region’s two most populous states – Texas and Florida – had the largest systems with 800,000 and 543,000 students respectively.  Their enrollment growth rates were lower, however, at 7.1 percent for Texas and 5.9 percent for Florida.  North Carolina also has a sizable system – 263,000 students – but had a much lower 3.9 percent growth rate in 2010.

Also Worth Noting:  Georgia fourth and eighth graders continue to make better-than-average progress on national reading and math achievement tests.  Georgia was not among five states that SREB highlighted in its assessment analysis of the Nation’s Report Card but a close look at how students here performed is very encouraging.  Click here to read the SREB entire report.  Georgia reading and math improvement scores appear on pages six and seven.


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