Higher Education in the Atlanta Region
Beth Day, November 2006
The Atlanta region enjoys a concentration of higher education matched by few other U.S. metropolitan areas. Atlanta's colleges and universities have been an important thread in the city's history, and they are tightly linked with the city's national identity. Today they are also a key component of its economic development and branding efforts.
The region that centers on Atlanta (and includes the Atlanta, Athens, and Gainesville metro areas) is home to 49 colleges and universities that enroll more than 216,000 students. These institutions offer a comprehensive range of degree programs, employ almost 70,000 individuals in stable jobs, and generate well over $1 billion in research spending each year. Higher education comprises a significant sector of the local economy—fueling a $10.8 billion impact on the state of Georgia, creating 130,000 jobs, and contributing $3 billion to state and local tax collections.1 Colleges and universities attract millions of visitors to arts, sporting, academic, and alumni events. They spend billions in capital and operational purchases.
But numbers don't tell the whole story of Atlanta's relationship to its colleges and universities. These institutions touch individual lives with educational, cultural, and economic benefits woven throughout the region. And Atlanta is a better place to live because of their public policy research, community outreach, services to business and government, and support for K–12 schools.
Something for Everyone
Atlanta's colleges and universities offer an extraordinary mix of missions and campus settings—from downtown high rises to tree-lined quads, from renowned research institutions to premier liberal arts colleges, from technical institutions to specialized schools of art, theology, and medicine. This means the opportunity to improve through education is open to everyone who lives and works in Atlanta. More than 32 percent of adults in the Atlanta region hold a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to a national average of 24 percent.
A Center of Academic Collegiality
Atlanta has long been a place where business, government, and community organizations work together for progress in the region. That culture extends to higher education, where the cooperative nature of the area's of colleges and universities has served them well for generations and boosted the value of the region's rich academic endeavors.
Dating to 1929, the Atlanta University Center Consortium is the nation's largest and oldest consortium of historically black colleges and universities, and is today comprised of Clark Atlanta University, Interdenominational Theological Center (itself a consortium of six seminaries), Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman College. About that same time, Emory University and Agnes Scott College began to explore cooperative relationships. By 1938, Emory and Agnes Scott, the University of Georgia, the Atlanta College of Art, Columbia Theological Center, and the Georgia Institute of Technology formed the University Center in Georgia to share resources, avoid duplication, and facilitate collegiality among faculty.
Today, that organization is the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education. It helps 19 public and private institutions across the region share resources—through cross-registration for students, library sharing, and cooperative purchasing—and compiles reports about their collective impact and value. Academic collaboration in Atlanta now includes not only faculty working together on research but also formal joint degree programs among institutions such as Georgia Tech, Emory, and Georgia State University.
Higher Ed Grows with the Region
The history of these institutions of higher learning is closely tied to the population growth, economic prosperity, and dominant industries of the region. The University of Georgia was chartered in 1785 and began educating Georgians in 1801. After the Civil War, between 1865 and 1881, Atlanta saw the rise of the institutions that have made the city a Mecca for African Americans, including Atlanta University, Clark University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College.
Soon after, heralding the change from agricultural to industrial South, the Georgia School of Technology admitted its first class in 1888. Between 1913 and 1919, Emory and Oglethorpe universities moved their primary campuses to Atlanta from elsewhere in the state. And by 1932, enough separate public institutions were in existence that the Georgia General Assembly created the Board of Regents to bring them together.
During modern times, Atlanta's colleges have grown with their booming Sunbelt home. Professional programs support Atlanta's business and financial centers, and local two-year colleges have evolved into advanced-degree-granting universities to serve their suburban populations in many disciplines.
Today, the Atlanta region is a powerhouse of higher learning. Atlanta ranks in the top tier of U.S. cities across every measure of higher education—6th in number of degrees awarded each year at the bachelor's level or higher, 7th in enrollment, and 4th in annual research spending.2 Its broad array of colleges and universities spell a Southern education success story—so that businesses, students, and academics know that whatever they're looking for in higher education, they'll find it in Atlanta.
—Beth Day is vice president of the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education, which brings together 19 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in the Atlanta area to build awareness and share strengths.