Silver lining

As the economy goes down, enrollment and activity go up

Artist's rendering of the new Armstrong Atlantic Student Union

IT'S HAPPENING at Armstrong Atlantic State University. Savannah Technical College is experiencing it, too. So is Savannah State University.

As the economy weakens, enrollment is rising. “We’re looking at a 5 percent enrollment increase this fall,” says Russell Watjen, Dean of Enrollment Services at AASU.

“My experience has been in a down economy, enrollment is higher,. It’s always that way. Folks gear up and get the skills they need to progress,” Watjen says.

“A combination of state subsidies and the Hope scholarship on top of that makes public education in Georgia a tremendous deal. People talk about good debt and bad debt, but I can’t think of any better investment than in yourself and your educational background,” he says. “It’s a combination of low price and high value.”

AASU is seeing an increase in both traditional and non-traditional students. “A large number come in as undeclared students,” Watjen says. “My experience is that the undeclared are the most talented academically. They realize there are so many different directions they can go, they have some difficulty committing to a specific area.”

Non-traditional students are more likely to be sensitive to the economy, Watjen says. “They’re out there trying to earn a living,” he says. “They’re recognizing that certain avenues of advancement will be limited to them unless they go back to school. A good many are in a situation where if they can get a master’s degree, they can make more money.”

History tends to repeat itself. “Typically, there is a cyclical relationship between enrollment and the state of the local economy,” says Dr. Michael Toma, director of the Center for Regional Analysis and professor of economics at AASU.

“When the economy weakens, enrollment tends to pick up. The reason is not really a big secret,” Toma says. “When jobs are harder to find, or one become unemployed, the cost of going to classes is reduced. In other words, you don’t give up as much in a weak economy as you would in a strong economy.

“When the economy is very strong, you might be getting lots of overtime at your job,” he says. “When the economy is strong, going into class means giving up income. That makes it very costly to attend class.

“If the economy is weak, you’re not working overtime hours,” Toma says. “The big picture is that you don’t give up as much to go to class during a weak economy.”

Apparently, Toma knows what he’s talking about. “I have to thank Douglas Wilder, then-governor of Virginia, for setting up my incentive to pursue a PhD,” he says. “I was employed by an agency in Virginia which took its cues from the state government in pay matters. The governor froze all state salaries for 18 months, so I decided to go back to graduate school at that time. Now here I sit in Savannah with a PhD.”

As for the local economic picture, Toma, who writes a quarterly newsletter on the subject, says it has given up some ground.

“Employment numbers are barely ahead where they were last year at this time,” Toma says. “Expenditures by tourists are losing ground. It looks like overall retail sales are down a little bit. We haven’t fallen off the cliff, but we are down.”

However, Toma says there’s no need to panic. “We haven’t gone into a depression,” he says. “We’re just going through the normal cyclical economy. Right now, we’re in a little bit of a weak spot but things will improve. We’re looking at 2009 before things start to turn around.”

Even though enrollment is up, Toma says a weaker economy will mean the state budget will go down. “In a weak economy, your budget is going to be cut,” he says.

“Our baseline is getting cut at the same time,” Toma says. “There’s a trade-off there. We need to have added enrollment growth to offset or compensate for a reduction in the baseline budget. It’s a good news-bad news thing.”

It’s all just part of the normal economic cycle. “We really haven’t had a serious recession since 1990-91,” Toma says. “It’s been a good long time, so anything that seems out of the ordinary is amplified.”

Area colleges are also gearing up with some new construction projects. Recently, AASU obtained approval from the Board of Regents for the construction of a new Student Union. It will be located in the heart of campus to bring expanded services to a growing student population, including more than 860 resident students.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for September 23 at 12:45 p.m. and the building is scheduled to open in the fall of 2009. The two-story building will rise adjacent to the existing Memorial College Center and will include a 300-seat food court-style dining area, a 200-seat lecture hall/movie theater and a ballroom.

“Now that AASU is becoming more residential, it is of vital importance that we have adequate space on our campus for student activities and a gathering point for our many student organizations,” says AASU President Thomas Z. Jones.

The 60,180 square-foot facility will cost about $16 million to construct. It will include a convenience store, a 5,700 square-foot bookstore, a coffee shop and office space for the Student Government Association, Campus Union Board and the Office of Student Affairs. Outside, it will have porches, plazas for seating and water fountains.

No public funds will be used for the project. The Student Government Association and the University Fees Committee approved a $90 student fee in 2007 that will finance the project.

“This new student union is a student-driven project from conception to design,” says Vicki L. McNeil, vice president of Student Affairs.

Adrian Cornelius, Dean for Enrollment Management at Savannah State University, says enrollment is up there, too, but he doesn’t believe it’s due entirely to the economy. “We have really re-engineered our recruitment efforts,” he says. “The president has established a very ambitious enrollment increase expectation.”

Enrollment is expected to increase every year over the next five years. “We’re planning on getting to 5,000 students by the year 2012,” Cornelius says. “Right now, we’re at 3,443. That is an 8.6 percent increase over last fall.”

The goal for 2008 was 3,250 students. “We have gone 193 above what the expectation was,” Cornelius says. “What that means to us is that we met and exceeded the target for this fall, which makes a clear statement.

“This plan was established earlier this year,” he says. “At that point, we started a tremendous effort to accelerate our enrollment.”

SSU is working to better target the student populations it wants to serve, Cornelius says. For example, the Adults Interested in Matriculation program, or AIM, is designed specifically to attract non-traditional students who are interested in pursuing higher education, whether as a first-time student or a transfer student.

Events were held earlier this year to introduce potential students to SSU. “We got a very nice turnout,” Cornelius says. “Some of those students actually enrolled. I heard them say, ‘I want to re-tool,’ and ‘I want to finally get my degree.’”

Like AASU, SSU is building to meet the demands of an increased student population. “The construction of the new academic building is going full-fledged,” Cornelius says. “Where there is construction, there is progress. We’re excited about that.

“We’re also excited about the opening of Hill Hall, our most historic building,” he says. “It has been reconditioned and we are scheduled to move our enrollment management areas into Hill Hall.”

The 107-year-old Hill Hall was closed for 12 years. Restoration efforts were set back by a fire that gutted the building in 2000.

“We’re planning on having a one-stop shop, with a customer service area,” Cornelius says. “Our students will have one place for enrollment services -- admissions, registration, records, financial aid, those kinds of things all in one area. We’re excited to be able to enhance these services.”

The growth at Savannah Technical College is clearly visible. Buildings on the main campus off White Bluff Road have been expanded or are in the process of renovation.

To meet the increasing demand, Savannah Tech has established satellite campuses in Liberty and Effingham counties, and at the Crossroads Business Park. It also has an office in the SFC Paul R. Smith Army Education Center on Fort Stewart to serve the military community.

Gail Eubanks, Interim Vice President for Student Success at Savannah Technical College, says enrollment is up for fall classes, which will start in October. “Aside from the economy, there are some other factors,” she says. “We have done well to define our niche in the community.

“If you look in our classrooms, you’ll see that the traditional-age college student, 18-22, is one of our fastest growing populations,” Eubanks says. “Parents and guidance counselors are getting the message out that the technical college experience can provide opportunities.”

There also are many non-traditional students, especially those who need better pay or job security.

“At Savannah Technical College, the thing that distinguishes us is that we have something for everyone,” Eubanks says. “If you’re in a middle range career and find yourself needing to do something different, in a few quarters, you can do something that will move your career along and give you added skills and confidence.

“We have a lot of people who come to us wanting a second career,” she says. “We have one police officer who is studying culinary arts.”

Another police office is studying to become a surgical technician. One student who already has had a career in sales is now working towards a nursing career.

“Our LPN Student of the Year did warehouse work for 20 years of her life,” says Melanie Smith, Interim Enrollment Management and Marketing Director at Savannah Tech. “When her youngest child graduated from high school, she enrolled in the LPN program and has been very successful.”

Students who want to pursue a four-year degree can do so. Many graduates of Savannah Technical College leave with eligibility for the Hope Scholarship at state universities.

“We offer a full complement of development classes, in math, science, psychology,” Eubanks says. “Most students who want to transfer can.”

Savannah Tech offers a wide range of programs. Demand is particularly high for its allied health, air-conditioning, electrical and construction programs.

“They are always at capacity,” Eubanks says. “That is partly due to the really good labs we have both in allied health and industrial.”

Students attend some classes online and others, especially those requiring lots of lab time, on-campus. Eubanks taught in the Criminal Justice program at the Crossroads campus, and says students soon learn to manage their time.

“Students are very resourceful,” she says. “They find a way to make it work. Our students find a way to have all that is provided for them, what they are looking for. They can get in as much as they need.”

Marguerite Engram is a non-traditional student who is studying administrative office technology at Savannah Tech. “I’ve already completed the business office technology program, now I’m completing the administrative office technology program, and the degree program I’ll start on Oct. 1 is a program for accounting,” she says.

Engram started taking classes in 2003. “It was just my time,” she says. “Sometimes, there are little glitches, but you always find someone to advise you in the right area to go.”

The classes are challenging, but the effort is worth it, Engram says. “You must apply yourself. It takes dedication to study, to complete a homework assignment, to attend classes.”

Tocarra Washington also is a non-traditional student at Savannah Tech. “Savannah Tech understands students,” she says. “It’s not like a traditional university. There are online classes, weekend classes. Many students are single parents, or seeking a mid-life career change. They don’t have time for a traditional education.”

Washington is studying marketing management. After she was graduated from high school, she intended to go to a four-year university to study fashion, but life intervened.

“My mom told me about Savannah Tech,” Washington says. “She said I should check it out, so I came over and got a class outline.

“I realized marketing offered the same experiences as fashion,” she says. “I was really more interested in the business side. Savannah Tech really helped me narrow my choices.”

Some classes at Savannah Tech are held on Mondays and Wednesdays, and others on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Washington currently attends classes all four days and works part-time, not easy tasks for the mother of a 3-year-old son and 4-month-old baby.

“At Savannah Tech, they really understand that life happens,” Washington says. “But at the same time, they want us to be career-ready. They won’t let us use our life experiences as a crutch.”

Washington plans to transfer to a four-year university for a degree in business after graduation from Savannah Tech. “I want to do public relations or market research,” she says.

Trying to improve your life is hard when you have responsibilities, but it can be done. “It comes with perseverance,” Washington says. “If you set goals, you can achieve them.” cs

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