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Grow Dawgs! Rising UGA Enrollment Hits 40,000

Incoming freshman at orientation in June at the Tate Student Center. Credit: Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA Marketing and Communications

The University of Georgia passed a kind of enrollment milestone this year with more than 40,000 fall semester students, according to the University System of Georgia. At UGA’s recent pace of growth, another milestone may not be far off. Enrollment could hit 50,000 in about a decade, with implications locally for affordable housing, the preservation of the remaining residential neighborhoods in East Athens and much more.

UGA is poised for more growth, with a new 525-bed residence hall under construction down the hill from UGA’s Baxter Street high-rise dorms and 123 more beds in an Episcopal Church student housing project on Lumpkin Street. Plans are moving forward for hundreds more student bedrooms on Broad Street and Lexington Road. Student-oriented apartments near the campus and downtown Athens have absorbed much of UGA’s student growth in recent years, reducing some of the pressure university growth exerts on single-family housing as neighborhoods are converted to student enclaves.

After explosive growth in the 1960s, when the university’s enrollment tripled as the Baby Boomers began entering the hallowed halls of higher education, UGA growth has been relatively modest. It took 27 years for UGA to grow from 20,226 in 1968 to 30,149 in 1995, and another 26 years to reach 40,118 this fall. But the pace has picked up in the past seven years, to about 2% a year. At that rate, UGA will reach 50,000 students in about 11 years. UGA received more applications for admission this year than any previous year, UGA President Jere Morehead said at a UGA Research Foundation Board meeting last month.

The sheer size of the student body isn’t the only transformation underway at the university and other Georgia public colleges, USG statistics show. One long and continuing shift is in gender. The last year men were in the majority at UGA was 1980, and the gap has slowly but steadily widened. This year, female enrollment reached a record 58.9%—three women for every two men, which is similar to state and national averages. At Georgia Tech, by contrast, just 31.5% of students are women; that ratio has barely budged since 2010, when 29.2% of Tech students were women.

UGA’s shifting man-woman numbers mirror national trends, but the university’s

diversity numbers are not so typical. UGA remains one of the whitest of Georgia’s public colleges, university system numbers show. Only Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville and Tifton’s Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, both at about 80%, have higher white enrollment than UGA’s 66.1%. Minority representation in the UGA student body has grown in the past two decades, however. In 2000, UGA’s enrollment was 87% white.

Asian-American students, a catch-all category that includes students with roots in China, Korea, India and a number of other countries, are the fastest growing minority group at UGA. Asian students were 3.6% of the UGA student body in 2000, the same as in 1990. Today they are 11.2%.

Representation of Georgia’s largest minority, African Americans, has stalled, however. Black enrollment at UGA peaked at 8.3% in 2019 and 2020, then dropped to 8.1% this year. Black college enrollment has declined nationwide during the pandemic.

Ten years ago, the University of Georgia was the state’s largest university, but now, it’s only No. 4 on that list. Atlanta’s Georgia State University became the state’s biggest university in 2016 after merging with two-year Georgia Perimeter College. Last year, explosive enrollment growth at Kennesaw State University and Georgia Tech pushed above UGA on the state enrollment charts.

Both Tech and Kennesaw pursued aggressive growth strategies in the past 10 years. Kennesaw State has grown from 23,452 students in 2010 to 42,983 today to become the state’s third-largest college. Georgia Tech is in the second slot after engineering growth from 20,721 in 2010 to 43,859 today, growth fueled largely by the success of its online graduate programs.

Georgia State remains the largest school in the university system, despite a 2.6% enrollment drop to 52,350 this fall.

The growth in the Atlanta schools and at UGA also reflect another national shift—urban and larger schools have seen growing enrollments while rural schools lose, especially in the past two pandemic years. Together, UGA, Tech and Kennesaw State grew by 48,093 students from 2010 to 2021. The other 23 colleges in the system lost a collective 18,897 students, a decline of more than 8%. In 2012, for example, the year before South Georgia College and Waycross College merged, enrollment at the two schools was 3,059 students, according to USG statistics. Today, that enrollment stands at 1,774.

Statewide, University System of Georgia enrollment grew by 29,196 students from 2010 to 2021, but not by getting more Georgia residents into college classes. In fact, in-state enrollment actually declined slightly, from about 280,000 in 2010 to about 275,000 now.

Led by Georgia Tech, the state university system has avoided an overall enrollment decline by attracting more out-of-state and out-of-country students. Tech’s international enrollment is now 13,431 after growing by more than 9,000 students between 2010 and 2021, and its enrollment of students from other U.S. states more than doubled to 10,960. Systemwide, U.S. out-of-state enrollment more than doubled, from 20,206 to 43,017. Out-of-country enrollment grew nearly as rapidly, from 11,215 to 22,348. UGA’s in-state enrollment stood at about 80% this fall, not much changed from 20 years ago, when it was about 84%.

While continued UGA growth seems inevitable, the new growth may look different than in the past. UGA administrators have been trying to increase graduate student numbers for several years, in line with the university’s continuing push to grow its research enterprise. At major public research universities, such as the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more than a third of enrollment is graduate-level. At UGA, it’s about 25%. This year the university had some success in growing graduate enrollment. Of UGA’s overall 961 headcount increase, 570 came on the graduate and professional school (veterinary medicine, law and pharmacy) side.

More students are taking courses online now, and even before COVID, about half the graduate-level enrollment in the university system was online. But students come to Athens for more than knowledge. They come for a college experience, to root for the Dawgs, to make lifelong friends, to mate and some stick around long after graduation. That’s one reason why  only Atlanta among Georgia cities has seen home prices rise more than in Athens, which doesn’t seem likely to change.