Colleges and Universities

Atlanta Tops List for Best Colleges & Universities

Atlanta continues to earn a well-deserved reputation as a digital media hub and leader in innovation. While technology minded companies like AT&T and SalesLoft may help fuel the buzz, there’s another industry responsible for keeping it on the map. This region graduates engineers with the third highest number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the country. Atlanta is also the fourth fastest-growing metro area for technology degrees in the country.

But higher education doesn’t just bolster innovation, it also boosts economic health. Higher education’s productivity made a $10.8 billion impact on Georgia and accounts for 3.2 percent of the state’s annual gross product. It also provides more than 130,000 jobs in this state throughout varies industries, and attracts nearly 6 million visitors ready to spend money on hotels, entertainment and transportation. In just five short years, Atlanta’s higher education system has grown research and development expenditures by a staggering 46 percent.

Education is a serious business in Atlanta. The Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education reported that the city snagged the No. 7 spot in the number of full-time students in urban areas and currently hosts nearly 250,000 enrollees. More than 1,800 distinct programs of study are offered at the associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate and professional levels among Atlanta’s 57 colleges and universities. That means more jobs for administrative staff, teaching professionals and researchers, among other positions.

Atlanta’s reputation as a cap-and-gown town solidified when the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce unveiled its five-year Business Higher Education Council to help commercialize research from local universities and colleges in support of Atlanta’s startup community. This five-year “Forward Atlanta” plan is poised to stimulate economic growth while focusing on jump-starting job growth in industries like wireless mobility and health information technology, as well as driving strong education and business collaboration.

Now that Georgia and Atlanta top the lists for the best in higher education, there’s a new challenge at hand. Local universities and colleges need to attract potential students, and keep the area’s working adults advancing their careers through continued learning opportunities. But enticing potential students to the city doesn’t just mean campus amenities, sports programs and scholarships. It also means building resources to help graduating students compete in a competitive job market. While there’s no one way to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, the secret lies in the exact thing Atlanta is known for: Innovative thinking.

Chattahoochee Technical College, which has eight campuses throughout Atlanta, is thinking outside the classroom by providing students opportunities to share their education with hands-on service learning experiences. Students lend their hands and minds to learning and civic engagement projects that expand their education while giving back to the community. Chattahoochee Tech’s Service Learning Coordinator Rashonda Welch estimates their students contributed more than 12,000 hours toward 80 community organizations — the value of that time equals to more than $277,000.

This year, Chattahoochee Tech also took notice of an often overlooked community in higher education. In 2012, 498,427 veterans and service members used the Post-9/11 GI Bill. To help meet the growing educational need of this unique group, the college helped formed the Student Veterans of America chapter. The University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia partnered on the project, providing military and family members with education, credit transfer, training and job placement.

Mercer University, which is based in middle Georgia but has a metro Atlanta campus and has been recognized annually as one of Princeton Review’s best colleges, is also committed to its students’ success; and part of that is making sure they are providing connections to today’s workforce. The Office of Career Management spearheads this initiative through one-on-one coaching and advisement, and also through a number of events and workshops to prepare students for their job search. Mercer also brings this preparation into the classroom. For example, its Executive MBA program partners each student with an executive coach who works with them individually to prepare for career advancement and to achieve their professional goals.

In addition to offering pre-professional programs for students in Brenau University’s occupational therapy, nursing, physical therapy and physician’s assistant programs, the college encourages students to participate in the National Intercollegiate Mediation Tournament hosted by the International Academy of Dispute Resolution. In November, students from all over the country and several foreign countries will be at Gainesville-based Brenau for this tournament, which preps students on effective and efficient means of resolving disputes among people in various fields—an excellent way to ready students for their future professions.

It’s no secret that today’s graduates struggle with mounting student debt and securing viable employment, and Clayton State University is no stranger to students in need. Last year, 78 percent of their students demonstrated financial need with 6,000 students receiving scholarships, grants, loans or a combination of financial aid. But 69 percent of those students still have unmet financial needs. In response, university officials representing the Clayton State University Complete College Georgia Initiative, financial aid, honors program and development joined forces to find a solution in 2013. They worked to identify students’ needs and funding possibilities and launched Dream Makers: A Scholarship Initiative for Clayton State University.

Dream Makers’ goals are ambitious with $1,000/per year scholarships earmarked for 25 students. A Loch Leaders Investment Fund endeavors to secure 50 donors of $500 each to recognize high achievers. Such students are required to be full-time with a GPA of 3.5 or greater with an unmet financial need. And finally, the Laker Completion Grants looks to a goal of $50,000 from a wide variety of donors.

But not all student needs are strictly financial. Many need help transitioning to the demands of higher education and their new life of academia. Georgia Piedmont Technical College launched a First Year Focus program this fall. Designed to improve a student’s ongoing success and completion in college, this program focuses on easing the transition from high school to college, acclimating students and post-test advising. Experienced advisors discuss career goals, academic requirements and life balance to work towards their degrees and certificates. GPTC is also working on STEM education — programs in science, technology, engineering and math. With STEM learning in mind, the college is currently working to increase enrolment of STEM-related programs, increased productivity of its advisory boards and strengthen its community and industry relationships.

It’s not just higher education career services that help shape and focus Atlanta’s future professionals. The state also provides a dual enrollment scholarship program for qualifying high school juniors and seniors named “Accel.” The HOPE Scholarship-funded program allows public, private and accredited homeschool students to enroll in college or university classes while completing their high school diploma at the same time. The state also offers an early admission option where students can forgo their senior year of high school and attend college instead. Such students live on campus and take freshmen classes. The scholarship students ultimately graduate ahead of their peers and are ready to enter the workforce sooner.

Additionally, college graduates have plenty of reasons to stay in Atlanta once they leave behind their higher education days. According to, Atlanta snagged the coveted No. 1 spot in the list of top 10 U.S. cities for recent graduates. The average salary of $43,000 for recent grads is 21 percent higher in Atlanta than the national average. With such a promising outlook on the horizon, graduates can look to the wealth of industries available in their alma mater city. Global companies and Fortune 500 companies like The Home Depot, Delta Air Lines, The Coca-Cola Company and UPS call Atlanta home. The trend becomes cyclical as the talent pool filters into the city’s industries, capable college grads help grow business and companies recruit new talent to keep up with productivity and demand.

Without higher education the state and businesses working together to foster metro Atlanta’s grads, this area might only serve as a blip on a student’s radar on the way to somewhere else. Instead, the increasing demand for business talent in a culturally diverse city positions Atlanta to thrive. It might best be said that Atlanta’s success starts and stops with higher education.