Three months ago, a record number of students walked across the graduation stage with their bachelor’s degrees in hand. Today, enrollment is climbing and every available housing space on campus is filled to capacity. Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College President David Bridges said in a press conference Monday he anticipates the start of classes for the fall semester Wednesday. In fact, he’s downright ecstatic.
“I love the atmosphere on this campus when any new year begins, and this year that first day is really going to be exciting because of the preliminary numbers I have reviewed,” Bridges, who begins his eighth fall term at ABAC, said.
Bridges said the enrollment could stretch toward 3,300 students from 151 Georgia counties, 25 countries and 22 states. One of the key factors in that possible enrollment increase over last year is that almost 1,300 of those students will live on campus in either ABAC Lakeside or ABAC Place.
“One of our goals over the past six months was to try to fill every room,” Bridges said. “Right now, we have more requests than we have space, but I am confident we can find a place for these students to live on campus. Enrollment is up, the dorms are full, and the number of students transferring to ABAC is up 40 percent from last year."
In the past, ABAC has been a school that has transferred students to other schools, Bridges said. But that's changing now.
"This is a strong indicator that people realize the quality of educational opportunity that is available at ABAC. When class begins Wednesday, we anticipate more students. More importantly, the number of students seeking bachelor's degrees is up 36.5 percent. This is a real signature moment for us," he said.
Dr. Tim Marshall, dean of the School of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the increased popularity of bachelor’s degrees at ABAC should send that school’s enrollment soaring over 1,000 students for the first time ever.
“We have had a lot of interest in the diversified agriculture degree and in the natural resources area,” Marshall said. “I think one reason for that is that there are jobs available in the agriculture industry. Employers want to hire ABAC graduates.”
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, whose daughter Caroline is an ABAC alumnus, said agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry, generating more than $71 billion in economic activity and accounting for more than 87,000 full- and part-time jobs in the state.
More than 800 students are expected to be enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs at ABAC during the coming year. That’s the highest number in the 105-year history of the college. ABAC offers bachelor’s degrees in biology, forestry, wildlife, and turfgrass and golf course management. Under the Rural Studies degree, ABAC students can also receive bachelor’s degrees in social and community development, politics and modern culture, writing and communications, and business and economic development.
That business degree is one reason that enrollment in the Stafford School of Business will reverse a five-year trend and gain some students this fall. Dill and Susan Driscoll, deans of the Stafford School of Business, believe the numbers will be even higher in the future.
“The number of freshmen in the Stafford School of Business should be up 40 percent over last fall,” Dill Driscoll said. “We are very excited about that.”
“The curriculum now is at a level where graduates can start their own businesses, continue with the second, third or fourth generation of their family businesses or just be sound business managers,” Susan Driscoll said. “Some of them will like living in rural communities, and others will prefer Atlanta or even London. We’re very excited that we have been able to create the curriculum so that our students will be ready for the real world.”
The School of Nursing and Health Sciences has also filled every available slot for the fall term. Interim Dean Troy Spicer said the health care industry is still hungry for ABAC graduates.
“I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and the speaker said that health care is one of the career fields that is almost recession-proof,” Spicer said. “There’s no end in sight for the shortage of nurses in this country.”
ABAC Public Relations Director Ashley Mock believes another reason for the popularity of ABAC this fall is the affordability factor.
“The cost of coming to ABAC for a year is $20,000 less than going to a research university, $8,800 less than attending a regional university, and $2,400 less than going to another state college,” Mock said. “Students and parents are trying to find the best way to get a great education at an affordable price.”
The most recent study shows ABAC has almost a $280 million annual impact on the Tifton area. That study includes the dollars generated from one of the city’s largest employers, the construction at ABAC as the college rebuilt its front campus, and the cash that students spend on everything from gasoline to pizza.
Bridges said with the increased number of students staying at the college for four or more years, that number could take a huge jump in days to come.
“It’s just a fact,” Bridges said. “Students who earn bachelor’s degrees are going to stay here at least four years to get that degree. Some of them will choose to get jobs in this area and raise their families here. It’s a win-win situation for ABAC and for this community.”
Bridges said school administrators are currently in talks to determine what will need to be done to accommodate the increase in student population. Items on the table include working toward obtaining a new science building, as well as increasing the number of faculty positions, particularly in the School of Business.