JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - After several years of record-setting growth, fall enrollment figures released Tuesday morning show a drop in the number of students taking classes at East Tennessee State University.
The official enrollment for the fall semester has dipped back below the 15,000 mark after reaching the milestone only a couple of years ago.
On Tuesday we took a look at the count and talked to university officials to find out if this is a growing trend.
For the second year in a row, ETSU is starting the school year with fewer students. Enrollment for the fall semester dropped to just over 14,900 this term, falling short of the celebrated 15,000 milestone from a couple of years ago.
"We have been over 15,000 [students] for the past couple of years," explained Ramona Williams, Vice Provost for Enrollment. "We anticipated enrollment would be down this fall."
University officials believe there is a direct link to fewer students this year to a statistic from nearly 20 years ago -- the birth rate. "One thing in particular is there are fewer high school graduates," Williams said. "Birth rates have been down for the past couple of years.
While top ETSU administrators say they saw this coming, news of fewer students on campus comes as a surprise to many of the students. "I've always thought that this school is a good education," sophomore Austin Frawley told us. "It surprises me that the enrollment is down."
After looking through the numbers, the biggest drop was in undergraduate students; the number of graduate students stayed virtually unchanged.
Student Angel DeBerry told us she put off college for a while, but decided she wanted a degree. She feels others who may be holding off signing up for college may change their minds down the road. "It's really important to me. It's getting harder to be able to live and take care of your family without [a college education]. You have to have that degree to be able to live and make that money," she said.
Even though there are fewer students on campus this fall, university officials are still pleased with the enrollment overall, especially when you compare it to 10 years ago when there was just over 12,000 students on campus.
They also they are not alone with lower enrollment; Ramona Williams tells us the number of college students is declining nationwide. "I think it's a bump in the road. I think we will come out on the other side in a couple of years, well on our way to moving back up," she said.
If birthrates from two decades ago are a true indicator, Williams says enrollment will likely turn around next year.
ETSU officials are currently looking at the enrollment figures to determine the number of students who returned for another year. The university is working to improve its retention rate, which is currently below the national average.