By Curt Yeomans
With college enrollment at an all-time high, University System of Georgia officials are wondering when the growing number of students will meet the line of decreasing funding, and thereby, affect the quality of higher education in the state.
There were 283,000 students enrolled in Georgia universities and colleges during the fall 2008 semester. During his State of the University System address on Tuesday, Chancellor Erroll B. Davis, Jr., said that marked a new enrollment record for the state.
At the same time, Davis said decreasing funding for the state's 35 higher education institutions is creating challenges for the system, because schools have to balance the decreases with rising enrollment. State colleges and universities had to make an eight percent budget reduction during the fall semester.
"Without sufficient resources, academic quality at our institutions will degrade," said Davis. "We will not allow this to happen. We will recommend to you that we restrict access first, before we degrade quality."
John Millsaps, a spokesman for the university system, said Davis is not going to ask the university system's Board of Regents to implement enrollment caps this year. However, the chancellor wanted the regents to know what may lay ahead for the system.
"He was saying, 'Folks, pay attention to those factors because we'll have to deal with them somewhere down the road,'" said Millsaps.
But, Clayton State University officials said Wednesday growth is not an issue for their institution right now. While the school still has to deal with funding cuts, like every other institution in the system, Clayton State's enrollment has held steady at roughly 6,000 students for the last four and a half years.
The lack of growth in recent years followed a period earlier in the decade when the university saw a population explosion. "We've actually been extremely consistent for the last few years in terms of enrollment," said university spokesman John Shiffert. "Really, the period from fall 2000 to fall 2003 was when we really saw our enrollment jump up.
"That was when we saw our enrollment go from about 4,500 to about 5,600 students."
Facilities have been the main reason why enrollment slowed in recent years, Shiffert said. The key issue has been the university's low number of science labs, he added. The university requires every student to take a science course which includes a lab component, but there are only seven labs.
Gov. Sonny Perdue included $2.1 million in his budget proposal on Wednesday to fund the design phase of the university's new science building, but the money still must be approved by the Georgia General Assembly.
Another issue facing Clayton State's planning for the future is an upcoming change in the school's leadership, said Shiffert. Thomas K. Harden, the university's president, has accepted a job offer in Wisconsin, and will step down in May. The university system has not yet begun the process of seeking Harden's replacement.
"It's hard to say what will happen without knowing where we're going, and who we're going there with," said Shiffert.