What Goes Up Must Come Down: TN Public Colleges Lose Recession Enrollment Gains

Students at Tennessee State University in Nashville move in. TSU was the only Board of Regents school that had any growth in enrollment, even though it was just half a percent. Credit: TSU via Flickr

Students at Tennessee State University in Nashville move in. TSU was the only Board of Regents school that had any growth in enrollment, even though it was just half a percent. Credit: TSU via Flickr

University enrollment has dropped again at most public colleges in Tennessee. The Board of Regents is hoping the 3.3 percent dip is a temporary downturn, blaming everything from smaller classes leaving high school to more students returning to the workforce.

Student populations swelled during the recession. People stayed in school while jobs were harder to come by, the theory went. Middle Tennessee State led the way with more than 26,000 students in 2011. It’s also seen the biggest drop – down 6 percent. This fall’s headcount sank below 24,000 – roughly where it was in 2008.

“Unlimited growth was simply not something we could sustain forever,” says MTSU student affairs chief Debra Sells.

MTSU does see some silver lining. For one, there will be fewer cars on campus, dissipating the headache of finding a parking place to some degree.

“To drop a little bit does give us a chance to catch our breath,” Sells says, adding that MTSU is “not interested right now in reducing enrollment.”

Retention rates have taken a hit. Fewer upperclassmen returned.

But the school did see a slight increase in the size of this year’s freshman class, which administrators view as encouraging.

Now in its second year of system-wide decline, Board of Regents vice chancellor Tristan Denley says the dip isn’t entirely the result of negative factors. For instance, graduation rates have improved on most campuses – dramatically at some, like Tennessee Tech.

“If those students hadn’t graduated, well then they would be walking around on campuses and would appear in today’s enrollment figures,” he says.

But enrollment will have to rebound if public universities are going to help the state reach an ambitious goal of having a majority of working age adults with some type of degree.

“It’s at least our hope – and all of the things are in place – to see this temporary downturn reversed,” Denley says.

The Board of Regents also oversees the state’s community college system, which dropped by roughly the same amount as universities. However, Motlow and Nashville State bucked the trend and saw modest enrollment growth.

The only Board of Regents campus to increase this year is Nashville’s Tennessee State. It was only about 40 more students, but the gains are significant at TSU, which has experienced almost no sustained growth over the last decade.

The University of Tennessee system has not yet released its 2013 enrollment numbers.

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