College enrollment slides: Nationwide, student numbers are down by nearly 1 million

photo In this file photograph from 2012, students listen as Fernando Garcia teaches a business class at Dalton State College.

College enrollment dropped nationwide by 930,000 students from 2011 to 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau announced recently, with community colleges taking the biggest hit - a 10 percent drop.

Why? An optimistic take is that students have steered away from college to grab jobs that appeared as the economy improved. A more pessimistic view is that the expense of college and specter of student loan debt -- the average college graduate now owes an estimated $33,000 -- has made enrollment shrink.

Enrollment is a mixed bag in the Chattanooga region, with some colleges holding steady as others saw their numbers drop.

For the first time in a decade, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga saw its enrollment fall slightly, from 11,674 last school year to 11,670 now.

"This is the first year that we've been down in 10 years, and we're down four students," UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell said.

UTC's popularity has climbed steadily since fall of 2005, he said, when 8,656 students were enrolled.

"We have a really solid academic reputation," Cantrell said, adding that UTC is known as a place where students can learn skills needed to land a job.

And tuition is $4,069 a semester for a full-time, in-state undergrad -- a cost that can be further defrayed by the Hope lottery scholarship that averages $2,000 per semester.

"That puts us in a very affordable category," Cantrell said.

Enrollment is down about 10 percent at Chattanooga State Community College, spokeswoman Eva Lewis said.

Most of Chattanooga State's students are age 25 and older, Lewis said, and when the economy improves, they take fewer classes and spend more time working to meet such obligations as supporting a family.

"As the economy gets better, community colleges are often hit with lower enrollments," she said. "When we went into this recession, our enrollment went way up. We do fluctuate a lot with the economy."

Georgia Northwestern Technical College saw its enrollment decline by 3 percent from last year, or around 300 students, leaving about 5,500 students at its five campuses, college President Pete McDonald said.

"It's just one of those things," McDonald said. "The economy has improved a little bit."

Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tenn., also has seen enrollment fall.

"We have been down the last two years," said Ryan Herman, associate vice president for enrollment service. "There's probably a lot of different reasons for that."

Annual tuition is $19,440 at Southern Adventist, Herman said. But he said that puts the school at "mid- to lower end" on the tuition scale.

SAU draws students from the Adventist church's school system, which has about 1,000 U.S. schools and is outstripped in size only by the Catholic parochial school system. But numbers for the Adventist church's school system are also down, Herman said.

"Our traditional pool of students that we recruit from is the Adventist academy system," he said.

Between 2003 and 2013, fall head count at Tennessee community colleges peaked in 2010 at 98,458 and then declined to 90,613 in 2013, according to the 2013-2014 Tennessee Higher Education Fact Book.

During the same decade, four-year-university enrollment in Tennessee peaked in fall 2011 at 146,069 and then dipped to 139,870 in fall 2013.

Some predict that Tennessee's college enrollment numbers will climb, thanks to Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55 program. The goal is to equip 55 percent of the Volunteer State's residents with a two-year degree or better by 2025, up from 32 percent now.

"Tennessee's numbers are going to go up, not down," said Tennessee's U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, whose background includes a stint as U.S. secretary of education and University of Tennessee president.

Haslam recently barnstormed high schools around the state to promote Tennessee Promise, a program that will pay the tuition at a two-year college or technical college for any graduating Tennessee high school senior. It's the only program of its kind in the nation, Haslam said.

At mid-week, 34,200 high school seniors -- including 1,211 from Hamilton County -- had applied for Tennessee Promise, according to Executive Director Mike Krause.

"It exceeds our expectations, for sure," Krause said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at,, or 423-757-6651.

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