Is the University System of Georgia Misleading the Public About Albany State’s Enrollment?

A new enrollment report from the University System of Georgia says that total and full-time student enrollment at Albany State University is down by an average of six percent from 2016, while the rest of the system’s public colleges and universities are up three percent and have set a new system enrollment record.

For Georgia citizens who aren’t paying attention, the headline of down enrollment at ASU may cause concern about why the system consolidated historically black ASU with predominantly white Darton State College, and if that consolidation is working according to the new numbers. The framing is made more challenging as ASU officials themselves have co-signed the system’s report.

Our incoming first-time, freshman class grew 66 percent with 1,430 students enrolled for this fall semester. Last year we had 863 students enroll for fall semester 2016. This is encouraging; however, we must also be addressing how we support students so they keep advancing towards college completion.

Meanwhile, we also experienced a 68 percent increase in our Dual Enrollment program. This program provides a wonderful opportunity for the community and ASU, as we help high school students get a head start on earning college credits.

To be clear though, all of us need to act as recruiters for Albany State and work together to address our enrollment challenges. As announced last week, the transition team is heavily weighted with enrollment management experts.

But analyzing enrollment data is a little more complex than this – especially when considering the timetables, missions and resources involved in mashing two institutions together in a quick and public way.

First, Albany State and Darton State were not formally consolidated until Jan. 1, 2017, which would seemingly mean that marketing strategy, personnel and materials were still not in place even as the two schools worked through consolidation for half of 2016. It is unreasonable to expect that a new Albany State, a controversial new institution with a slate of degree options, would be able to reverse downward trends over the course of a spring semester and a summer in 2017.

And the term “new Albany State” is key here. In all of the documents and public disclosures about this consolidation, the USG has proclaimed that Darton would not be merged into ASU, but that they would be consolidated into a new school with a new mission and expanded degree offerings.

So how is it that a brand new school’s Fall 2017 enrollment data has any prior year analysis base? In theory, this is year one of the “new” Albany State, and should be viewed as the first year of data according with the system’s description of what the school actually is.

Which brings up the most important point – the data being used to compare Fall 2017 to Fall 2016 is either from one of two angles; the “old” ASU’s enrollment data, or the combined enrollment data of Albany State and Darton State prior to the consolidation.

Here’s the total enrollment data for both schools from 2015, according to the US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

And here’s the numbers from 2016, courtesy of the USG enrollment report.

And here’s the 2017 enrollment count.

Both schools lost students from previous years. But it is difficult to say that two schools performing independently of each other throughout the majority of 2016, with different personnel, tactics, missions and recruitment objectives, should be melded together and measured against the performance of a “new” institution comprised of both campuses.

If we are comparing one institution to one institution, here is how the numbers would actually look.

Albany State University

FA 2015 Enrollment – 3,492

FA 2016 Enrollment – 3,041

FA 2017 Enrollment – 6,615

Darton State College

FA 2015 Enrollment – 5,471

FA 2016 Enrollment – 4,120

FA 2017 Enrollment – 6,615

If taken independently, the “new” Albany State University more than doubles the enrollment of the “old” Albany State, and adds substantially to Darton State’s prior year numbers. In context, two schools consolidated in the second half of 2016 and formally consolidated on new year’s day of 2017 lost more than 500 students collectively but grew by an average of 3,000 students from their independent operations the year before.

Why is this important? Because the “new” Albany State University remains in mission and designation as an HBCU, and with flagship public HBCU campuses around the country breaking enrollment records, the narrative of Georgia making an HBCU bigger to serve more students, offer more degrees and conduct more research deserves a fair assessment in how the public is primed to view the institution.

But more than this, the University System of Georgia cannot act like its students, faculty, administrators, and citizens are idiots. Either ASU is a new institution beginning a bright future with one year of metrics behind it, or the consolidation is working to help two formerly underperforming campuses grow under one institutional banner.

But the USG doesn’t get to sell a notion of failure and struggle just because it is a historically convenient label for HBCUs, and believable by most casual observers of higher education. The USG needs to own the consolidation responsibly, honor the gains it has created for the region, and fund the prospects of this “new” HBCU with unlimited potential.

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