Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read October 2021 — George French Jr., president of Clark Atlanta University, spoke to Focus: Atlanta about the multifarious ways the school is evolving as a result of the pandemic and in its effort to meet future trends. Ultimately, the school made it through the challenge of the pandemic with flying colors, he said.
What is behind your decision to cancel student account debt?
We went back five total semesters and eliminated student account debt. We looked at the empirical data and it showed that the more student account balances accrued, the less likely those students would be able to make that obligation and return to school. It was astonishing to see that the majority of seniors who drop out and never finish owe an average debt of $1,500 to $2,000. That’s the case across the nation. We looked at that stat and we saw families not coming back because they couldn’t pay their debts, which was exacerbated by COVID-19. We looked at the Higher Education Relief Funds and saw that we could use our funds with whatever discretion we saw fit. We decided to eliminate the balances for about 2,000 students, reaching about $5 million to date.
What are some of the takeaways from the challenges of the pandemic?
It’s about long-time sustainability and discipline. Our COVID positivity rates have been some of the lowest in higher education, at 0.48. We’re testing the student population constantly. We’re requiring the vaccine, with two exemptions: medical or religious. Basically, over the last year, we’ve done a phenomenal job. Our students have been there with us. They’ve remained on campus, they have not attended large gatherings and they’re taking it seriously.
There’s a saying that crises and opportunity are cut from the same cloth. We’ve taken the crisis and turned it into an opportunity. We had four weeks to migrate students from an in-class pedagogy to an online platform and we continued effective learning and teaching for a year. So, why go 100 percent back to in-class teaching? Why not maintain an online presence going forward? If some of our students have moved on but haven’t completely finished, for example, they can finish online. It will increase our retention and graduation rates, while meeting the needs for our students. Additionally, according to a comprehensive analysis conducted by McKinsey & Company in May 2020, colleges and universities could expect a 25 percent or higher decline in enrollment. However, at Clark Atlanta University we only experienced a 4 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment and experienced a 13 percent growth in graduate enrollment. This year in Fall 2021 we have a 7.3 percent overall growth in enrollment. I’d say this data supports our decisions which are always in the best interest of our students.
What is your overview of the higher education sector in Atlanta at the moment?
This is the epicenter of all things great. When you look at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, with Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University, you have some of the best and brightest African-American minds from around the world. At CAU, we have students from 30 counties and 42 states. Clark Atlanta University has experienced the second highest enrollment in our institution’s history. When you combine that with the brilliant populations of Emory students, Georgia Tech, Georgia State and Mercer, this is the epicenter for higher education. Then look at entertainment: Georgia is now producing more movies than Hollywood. Or look at the fintech industry that is exploding here. Atlanta has become the center for intellectual thought and economic prosperity for African Americans in the country. All of these changes have to do with the vibrant educational ecosystem we have in Atlanta at the moment.
Where have you seen the greatest shifts in demand from students?
Students are looking for diverse opportunities. This generation has an entrepreneurial spirit unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Young people want the opportunity to explore opening their own businesses. We want to embrace that quest for knowledge. We also want to embrace the fact that tech companies — whether it’s Microsoft, Apple or Google — are all looking to headquarter here in Atlanta. The opportunities are great and they’re expanding every day.
We’ve also expanded our reach. We’re the largest academic cancer research center in the county. We’re speaking more and more with big pharma companies about patenting our discoveries. We’re offering a Ph.D. in cyber physical systems with a concentration in cybersecurity. These are the majors of the future and we’re glad to be ahead of the curve on them.
For more information, visit: https://www.cau.edu/