ATLANTA --- The University System of Georgia hit its highest enrollment this fall and is seeing more students graduate, Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. told the Board of Regents during his annual state-of-the-system address Wednesday.
Fall enrollment was 270,022 students, an increase of 10,077 students over last year.
"We grew essentially by a large university," Mr. Davis told the Regents at their monthly meeting.
The average six-year graduation rate for the state's colleges and universities increased from 49 percent to 51 percent this year, marking the first time in Georgia history that number topped 50 percent, he said. Still, the state ranks 37th in the nation for graduation rates, and Mr. Davis said he wants Georgia to improve.
Last year, the system budgeted $2.2 million for pilot programs targeting retention at five campuses to help improve graduation rates. The schools have used the money for improving academic advising, offering extra tutoring services and expanding programs that help sophomores make the transition more easily to upper-division courses.
Georgia ranks among one of the most affordable states in the region for public higher education, Mr. Davis said, citing a recent report by the Southern Regional Education Board. He said the system's guaranteed tuition plan has only helped that reputation.
In its second year, the tiered tuition plan means entering freshmen pay the same tuition rate for four years rather than facing increases each year as they historically have.
Mr. Davis didn't shy from the challenges the system faces.
One of those will be to "get past the unnecessarily complex politics" of expanding medical education in the state, Mr. Davis said.
A private consultant told the Regents on Tuesday that the Medical College of Georgia -- the state's only public medical school -- must undergo a massive expansion and open more campuses statewide to avoid a public health crisis in the next 12 years.
The report called for MCG to open campuses in Athens, Albany and Savannah and to explore opening campuses in Rome and Columbus. It also called for an infusion of $10 million this year to start the expansion, with overall additional funding totaling $1.3 billion in operating expenses and $210.8 million in capital expenses over 12 years.
Mr. Davis said he and his staff will spend the legislative session trying to prove to lawmakers how critical the expansion is.
Mr. Davis also promised the system is working to improve accountability for how its $5.7 billion budget is spent. State audits last fall revealed widespread abuse of state-issued purchasing cards, particularly within the university system.
The audit led to the firing or resignation of a handful of college employees across the state who had used the cards to buy everything from manicures to groceries. The system, which uses 10,000 of the p-cards, is conducting a review of transactions for the past fiscal year.