ATLANTA — Administrators at Georgia’s public colleges have a hard time predicting the popularity of academic majors they offer, according to newly released figures showing a coin toss would be about as accurate.

Of 336 programs approved by the Board of Regents in the last 10 years, just 163, or 49 percent, met or exceeded projected enrollment by their third year, according to the figures of the University System of Georgia.

Accuracy is important because staffing, space and other resources are allocated based on the projections, notes Teresa Joyce, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“Budgets are based on student enrollment. We’re looking at tuition dollars, so the budget goes under a very intense budget analysis so they are appropriated the dollars needed to support their program,” she said. “So a program not meeting enrollment expectations is likely using university resources that haven’t been budgeted for it.”

By the same token, submitting a low-ball projection in order to make a program appear wildly popular also skews the budget, she said.

“We don’t want to be gamed,” she told a regents committee Wednesday. “We don’t want institutions to start giving us really low enrollment numbers so that when they come here we’ll say, ‘Wow. This program is 4,000 times as popular…’ I’m not saying they’re gaming us, but the purpose of this is to track programs, to financially plan for programs.”

Some schools missed the mark more than others. Georgia Southern University, for instance, had accurate projections for nine of 10 programs while Georgia Regents University was right only six out of 17 times, and the University of Georgia met the goal 12 of its 46 estimates.

Joyce told the committee this is still a new process for the schools, and some of the data is missing from the earliest programs to get approved in the report, showing them as not meeting expectations.

“From a big-picture standpoint, I think we’re doing quite well,” she said.

And the chairman of the regents, Neil Pruitt, expressed pleasure in getting the data.

“I applaud y’all for doing this,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time.”

Every month, the regents have programs to approve, such as this month’s requests from Kennesaw State University to establish a Ph.D. majoring in analytics and data science, and UGA’s plan for a master of science with a major in soil, water and environmental sciences. Each comes with a two-page summary, list of other schools in the system offering the same degree, and an enrollment projection. In this case, UGA forecast six students enrolled by its third year.

Indeed, some of these programs are small and specialized. A GRU program for a Ph.D. in biostatistics was projected to have nine students by its third year when it began in 2008, but it only had seven. Now it has 10.

On the other hand, a Ph.D. in physical therapy was expected to draw 36 but wound up with 247. Now, however, it has 90. The same program at Armstrong State University was slated to have 60 students by its third year and garnered 59 by then, but it has 80 today.

Often, a popular major will be split into specialties, which should make forecasting easier.

Before a university makes a request, it has to do its homework and supply ample justification to the University System staff, according to Houston Davis, the system’s chief academic officer.

“The little bit of information you see is only part of the mound of information we look at,” he told the regents.

Of course, not all of the programs are graduate level. A bachelor of arts majoring in gender and women’s studies at Armstrong drew just eight of the projected 25 students by its third year and only 13 now.

At Savannah State University, the masters of business administration has come up well short of its goal, but the bachelors’ degrees in behavior analysis and in homeland security both exceeded their targets.

Savannah State President Cheryl Dozier said television shows helped popularize the security course. Others need to be showcased.

“The report has helped us say to faculty and department chairs to make sure that we marketing our selective majors, those niche programs,” she said.

Two factors complicate projections, faculty and students, she said.

“Majors change rapidly among the students. They come in with one major, and they change their major,” she said “… It’s very difficult to project that.”

Besides the students, who are young and often don’t know themselves what they will major in, there are the professors whose natural bias can also cloud estimates.

“You have faculty, and everyone thinks that theirs is going to be the one that’s tops,” she said.

The University System intends to make regular reports on program enrollment and to use the data to fine tune future projections, and ultimately decisions. That frequently includes consolidating some, scrapping others or rejecting requests up front.


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