October 24, 2012

Dalton State College enrollment drops

College experiencing ‘growing pains’ as Georgia Northwestern absorbs technical degrees

By Christopher Smith

— Two years ago, Dalton State College was celebrating record fall enrollment with 5,988 students.

Fall enrollment dropped to 5,485 students in 2011 and dropped again this August to 5,047 students in what college President John Schwenn calls an “unfortunate convergence of circumstances.”

Unfortunate, but necessary, said Angela Harris, assistant vice president for enrollment, who believes the drop shows “growing pains.”

“Ten years ago we were growing by leaps and bounds,” said Harris. “Now, Dalton State is changing. This evolution is going to show a changing enrollment trend.”

The change comes from several factors, said Harris, who pointed to the University System of Georgia’s decision to cut Dalton State’s technical programs and require a higher admission standard as the biggest reasons for the drop.

“Students seeking regular admission (at Dalton State) as a first-time student ... must have a minimum SAT verbal/critical reading score of 430 and mathematics score of 400 or must have an ACT English score of 17 and ACT mathematics score of 17,” said the system’s website.

Before, students could be admitted if they achieved a certain score on the Compass test — a college placement test that evaluates reading, writing, math and English — and would not be denied if they required remedial classes.

Jodi Johnson, vice president of enrollment and student services, said the upside to that change is a “better-prepared class.”

“The students admitted face better prospects for success in college and graduation,” said Johnson. “That’s a good thing even though it does mean that we suffer a loss of operating funds (from a drop in attendance).”

The fund shortfall of $150,000 was expected for this fall, said college spokeswoman Pam Partain, and resulted in cutting three full-time positions in April, adding two furlough days for teachers and faculty, and increasing student fees by $20 to $443 per student per year. Student fees pay for parking, technology, athletics and student activities, said Johnson, with a portion going into the general fund.

The fee increases and budget cuts offset reduced funding from the university system.

“The state allocation is down for a variety of reasons, including decreased tax digest and increased costs for health care, retirement programs and unemployment,” Schwenn said. “The total university system budget has been amended to cut $54.4 million; 3 percent of our allocation (of that) is $411,000. If we are called upon to return an additional 2 percent to the state, that would cut our allocation by more than $685,000.”

Dalton State College received $13.71 million in state allocation for 2012.

The need for additional cuts will be determined in the spring, said Partain, but the rest of the school year is settled.

The enrollment situation will also settle, said Harris, even though Dalton State’s technical branch faded after Georgia Northwestern Technical College’s Whitfield Campus opened in 2011.

“Last fall we had 223 students,” said Stuart Phillips, Georgia Northwestern vice president of student affairs. “Since the campus was so new, we’ve more than doubled our enrollment in one year to 491 students. That’s expected with such a large county. We’re only limited by our space. There’s going to be a sharp increase for a few years, but it will level off eventually.”

Overall attendance at Georgia Northwestern was 6,187 students in 2011 and 6,050 students in 2012 with campuses in Floyd, Gordon, Polk, Walker and Whitfield counties.

The Southern Regional Education Board — an Atlanta nonprofit that works with several state governments to improve education — said “enrollment in public two-year colleges ... was 37 percent as much as enrollment in public four-year colleges and universities (in 1970). Yet two-year college enrollment gains outpaced four-year institutions and by 2010, two-year colleges enrolled nearly as many students.” Dalton State College is a four-year institution.

A similar trend shows on Compass test attendance, which increased in participation in North Georgia with 1,723 test-takers in 2011 to 2,884 test-takers in 2012 (North Georgia includes Floyd, Gordon, Murray, Polk, Walker and Whitfield counties). Whitfield and Murray went from 118 test-takers in 2011 to 415 test-takers in 2012. The test is used for college admission by most colleges in the Technical College System of Georgia, which reported record attendance in the state with 190,842 students in 2010 and 189,216 students in 2011.

Georgia Northwestern officials said the large influx of students to technical schools might be coming from students who think the Compass test is easier than the ACT and SAT.

“Some four-year colleges, especially the regent schools, are no longer offering learning support classes,” said LaJuana Alexander, director of student affairs at Georgia Northwestern’s Walker campus. “Some students are also being referred to technical colleges for remediation. Our numbers may be swelling due to that factor to some extent.”

Even students who do well on the SAT or ACT are looking at technical colleges as a starting point, said Alexander.

“In conversations with parents, I also hear that some want their students to take core classes at our college because it is less costly than sending a student off to a four-year college,” she said. “They plan to transfer later.”

Until such a time, Harris is confident the local academic landscape will “eventually settle down.”

“We’re inventing the future rather than hanging on to the past,” said Harris. “Dalton State — with our technical education component gone — is who we are today. The benchmark for looking at enrollment is not the same anymore. I’m more apt to look at the 2011 to 2016 window than the numbers we have. That’s the real benchmark.”