On Wednesday, one week after the start of fall semester classes, it was clear that the prevailing trend in that data had come to an end.
The college's enrollment on Wednesday was 5,230, compared to about 5,220 last fall -- a meager increase versus the jumps the school saw even earlier this year.
In mid-January, officials reported a student count of 5,185, up 10.7 percent over the previous winter semester's 4,685. Double-digit growth also was seen this summer.
"This is the first time in 10 years we haven't had double-digit enrollment growth. There was one year, I think we had 6 percent, but when you average it all out, we've been averaging about 10 to 12 percent a year every year," Pierce said. "So we're all struck by that."
Officials in recent semesters have cited the economy as a likely factor in the enrollment jumps, as some in the workforce pursue college to retrain themselves or aim for a different occupation amid layoffs or tougher job markets.
While Pierce said the flat enrollment likely is due to a combination of several factors, the economy now may be causing student numbers to trend in the other direction.
"People have been out of jobs long enough, even their ability to go to school has eroded," he said. "We're already through severance packages, those kinds of things. And we have identified over 500 students who had registered for classes and could not make the payment deadline in the final analysis.
"We have done a sample of those students, and most of them fall in some financial category -- either they couldn't get financial aid processed in time or they just flat didn't have the money and weren't able to come. So I think the financial situation, the economic downturn ... is finally, I think, taking its toll, whereas when it first started, the numbers were going up, people were going back to school. Now they can't even do that."
Ron Shade, vice president for Student Services at the college, echoed Pierce's sentiment of the economy as a potential factor.
"It appears that some of it, perhaps, is economic conditions, stretched family budgets and whatnot. Perhaps some are opting through more rapid employability through vocational/technical program options at other schools," Shade said.
"We haven't had a lot of time to analyze it -- we just cut off registration yesterday at the end of the day. Now in the next year or two, we'll spend more time trying to analyze what factors contributed to the flat enrollment. We'll be looking at it to try to figure out what we can do to continue to increase access for students," Shade added.
Other factors that may have impacted enrollment, Pierce said, could include student retention issues, the flat number of submitted applications to the college and a federal financial aid process that may be "laborious" or "complicated" to those applying.
"I think a lot of people have not been able to get through the financial aid maze as well," Pierce said, adding that a majority of students do draw some form of financial aid.
Shade said the college's Cartersville campus remains its most populous site.
On Wednesday, its enrollment was 2,322 -- more than 44 percent of the total enrolled. That number was down slightly from the 2,395 students there last fall semester.
The Floyd campus in Rome had the second highest student total with 1,539, down from 1,697 the previous fall.
Following Floyd was the college's Marietta site, where enrollment went up over the previous fall -- 1,029 pupils compared to the previous year's 943.
Shade added that about 1,200 students are taking classes at either two sites or more or combination of on-site classes and online offerings.
Though the Cartersville and Marietta locations fueled a significant share of the total enrollment, they may also have contributed to the stagnant enrollment as they are at or near capacity. Pierce said potential students may have pursued other colleges due to the space issues at either or both of those venues.
"[Cartersville's] one building, it's full," Pierce said. "We've tried to get the other [proposed] buildings under way, but we haven't been able to do that yet. Even if we get the second academic building in the 2012 budget, it's going to take us two years to build it."
Though officials were expecting enrollment to continue its upward trend, its movement the other direction will not require job cuts or other budget-related reductions.
"We budgeted based on flat enrollment -- we were very conservative in terms of this budget. As long as we don't lose enrollment, then from a budgetary standpoint we're OK," Pierce said. "We just always were able to use the additional revenue from the double-digit increases to do other stuff with. We're not going to have to scramble or layoff people or anything like that -- it's just that we're disappointed that we don't have a few more students."
Though an enrollment increase of virtually nil means few additional sources of tuition dollars, Pierce said this buck in the trend could benefit the school in other ways.
"In some ways, it may be a blessing in disguise, because when you're growing, you aren't necessary looking at your processes and what's going on -- you're just assuming that you're going to continue to grow," he said. "Now that things have flattened out, we need to go back and look at processes and look at what is going on and figure out why we had this flip -- was it the economy or was it something internal we could have had an impact on?
"It's good from that standpoint to be able to do that, but if it's something outside of our control, then it's outside of our control."