But meeting that goal is far from assured.
Enrollment in both the University System of Georgia and Technical College System of Georgia declined in the past two years. Officials in the systems expect to see enrollment rebound, but are also witnessing mounting financial pressures on families as college costs rise, state funding is cut and family incomes decline.
The enrollment decline is especially steep at Georgia’s technical colleges, which saw enrollment balloon from about 81,000 in fall 2009 to more than 107,000 full-time students in 2011.
But in fall 2013 the system saw enrollment of 79,009, a drop of more than 26 percent in just two years.
The number graduating from technical colleges with certificates and degrees also declined sharply after peaking in 2011. Technical college graduates numbered 30,275 in 2009, jumped to 35,579 in 2011, then dropped to 28,278 in 2013.
The number of people passing the GED — the high school equivalency exam — also declined, from nearly 20,000 in 2010 to 14,540 in 2013.
Those getting degrees from the university system has continued to grow, on the other hand — but that growth rate slowed markedly last year. The number totaled 43,545 in 2013, up just 2.3 percent from the year before. In 2012, the growth rate from the previous year was 4.1 percent; in 2011, it was 5.6 percent.
The economic recession which began in 2008 accounts for some of the enrollment decline, as well as the sharp growth occurring before the decline. College enrollment tends to go up when jobs are scarce, and that’s what happened in both the technical college and university systems, officials say.
University system enrollment slumped in the past two years, but in the two years before that it jumped more than usual.
“If you take those out, we are really on the same trajectory we were prior to the recession,” said Shelley Nickel, the University System of Georgia’s associate vice chancellor for planning and implementation.
Students also flocked to technical colleges during the recession, but as unemployment gradually eased, some chose to return to jobs rather than get more training.
But the recession doesn’t explain all of the decline. Legislative actions also forced many students out of post-secondary training.
Georgia’s elected leaders reduced the value of HOPE grants and scholarships, and in 2011 imposed tougher academic requirements on technical college students who received the grants. More than 11,000 students lost HOPE because of a higher grade point average requirement, and half didn’t return to school, even after the legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal reversed course and returned to the old GPA requirement last year.
Legislative actions to provide more HOPE money for technical college students next year could bring more students back to them, however, according to Mike Light, a spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia.
Even with the sharp fall in enrollment and graduates, the technical college system is still on pace to meet the Complete College Georgia goal of 250,000 more graduates (technical colleges and university system combined) by 2020, said Andy Parsons, assistant commissioner for data, planning and research in the Technical College System of Georgia.
The fall in enrollment was expected after the big gains in 2010 and 2011, he said.
“We knew we would be right-sizing,” Parsons said.
Other changes not related to HOPE and the recession could also affect the number of graduates coming out of Georgia colleges and technical schools — both positively and negatively.
On the negative side, declining state contributions and higher college costs may put college out of reach of an increasing number of Georgians.
In 2000, tuition and fees at Georgia’s public research universities, such as the University of Georgia, averaged about $1,500 a semester, according to University System of Georgia statistics. In 2014, that average is about $5,000.
Here as in the rest of the country, more state financial aid flows to students of higher-income backgrounds than in the past, and less goes to lower-income students.
In 1996, a national average of 34 percent of state financial aid went to students in bottom 25 percent of income, and 16 percent went to students in the highest quartile.
In 2012, 25 percent went to the lowest 25 percent, 23 percent to the highest, according to statistics Nickel shared with the state Board of Regents in a January report on university system enrollment.
Median family income in Georgia, adjusted for inflation, declined from $56,576 in 2000 to $47,209 in 2012, according to that report.
At the same time, Georgia’s demography is shifting. Blacks and Hispanic Georgians, historically under-represented in the state’s colleges and universities, account for a growing proportion of Georgia’s population.
As family income declines, families are being asked to pay a larger share of college costs.
Student tuition and fees accounted for 25 percent of the technical college system’s budget in 2003; in 2013, the student share rose to 44 percent as state and federal lawmakers cut education funding.
On the plus side are many small and large initiatives to boost enrollment and graduation success.
Colleges and technical schools overhauled how they help students whose basic skills such as math or writing are lagging as they enter college in ways they believe will help them get through college sooner.
Colleges are also tracking students’ progress more closely so that students can get help sooner if they fall behind, Nickel said.
“We can make those numbers with the enrollment we have now by doing a better job of retention and graduation,” Parsons said.
The two systems are also cooperating more, for example making it easier to transfer academic credit earned in technical colleges to university system schools.
“Roadblocks are being eliminated that kept these students from graduating in the past,” Light said.
Colleges are also reaching out to older adults who had college coursework but left without a degree, to veterans and to under-represented minorities. They’re beginning to experiment with giving academic credit for experience as another way of speeding students toward graduation.
“If we didn’t do anything, our enrollments would likely decline,” Nickel said.
The university system and individual colleges and universities are also trying to raise more money to help lower-income students afford college.
“As we shift away from state support being the majority of funding... it is more important that we find more need-based aid,” she said.