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Georgia State University President Mark Becker

Georgia State University

Georgia State University President Mark Becker hosted a dinner with faculty leaders Monday night to tell them about the plan to merge their up-and-coming research university with a nearby college that graduates fewer than 10 percent of its students and struggles to balance its books.

By noon on Tuesday, after months of secret discussions, Georgia higher education officials had approved that plan, which will merge Georgia State with Georgia Perimeter College, a mostly two-year institution. The combined college would bear the Georgia State University name and be the largest university in Georgia in early 2016, when the merger is to be made final.

The move is the latest and perhaps the most significant in a series of mergers backed by Hank Huckaby, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia. With this change, he'll have reduced the number of colleges in the system to 29 from 35 when he took office in 2011. The system's Board of Regents also on Tuesday finalized the merger of Kennesaw State University and Southern Polytechnic State University.

System officials want Georgia State – a 32,000-student research university in Atlanta with a $750 million budget – to modernize and improve Georgia Perimeter. The suburban college has 21,000 students on five campuses around Atlanta and offers mostly two-year degrees.

Officials also hope that Georgia State will help Georgia Perimeter graduate more of its students. Right now, only 6.4 percent of its first-time students seeking a two-year degree graduate from the college within three years. Georgia State, on the other hand, has become a national model for increasing its graduation rate and graduating black and Hispanic undergraduates at the same rates as their peers.

Georgia State students and higher education observers quickly questioned the decision.

Georgia State students and alumni worry the move will devalue their degree. After all, the Georgia State University name will soon be stamped on the degrees of thousands of students who complete only two years of college.

Others fear that Georgia State will not continue Georgia Perimeter’s open-door admissions policies and will cut off access to thousands of Georgians.

Georgia's Mergers

  • Waycross College and South Georgia College became South Georgia State College
  • Macon State College and Middle Georgia College became Middle Georgia State College
  • Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University became the new University of North Georgia
  • Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University became Georgia Regents University
  • Kennesaw State University and Southern Polytechnic State University became the new Kennesaw State University

Becker said he asked some of the same questions when system officials first suggested the merger, but found that the merger does make sense for everyone.

“The head-scratching on this is for people that don’t understand there is a long and established relationship here,” he said.

Georgia State accepts about 1,500 transfer students a year from Georgia Perimeter, making the community college the university’s top feeder school.

For purposes of rankings, in which Georgia State has been rising, the four-year part of the new university can be counted separately from the two-year part.

The final arrangement may also end up looking like something Becker knows. He compared the new university to Palmetto College in South Carolina, which is part of the University of South Carolina, where he was once provost. Palmetto offers associate degrees and certificates to students who could not initially get into the university and gives able students a chance to transfer to a four-year program.

Becker said the new Georgia State, likewise, will have two different doors with separate admissions standards: one for university students, another for the community college students.

While Georgia State students worry about the value of their degrees, a leading community college expert worries the students who currently aspire to Georgia Perimeter will be denied access or shortchanged.

Kay McClenney, an independent consultant working with community colleges, said the plan is fraught with hazards about where Georgia Perimeter -- essentially a community college, although Georgia doesn't call it one -- fits amid the new university’s priorities.

“I don’t think that Georgia and its students are well-served by simply making Perimeter more like Georgia State,” she said.​

Despite the good work going on at Georgia State, McClenney said history is not on the side of Georgia Perimeter’s students after the merger goes through.

"It’s also important to acknowledge that in examining at least the past five or six decades, it would be difficult to identify instances where the community college mission -- and thus, the students who typically attend community colleges -- have been well-supported within a university structure,” she said.

Instead of merging two-year colleges with universities, like Georgia, other states have taken the opposite approach. Kentucky and West Virginia, for instance, have in recent years separated their community colleges from their universities.

Josh Wyner, executive director of the college excellence program at the Aspen Institute, said that while a university-community college merger might not make sense elsewhere, if any university can make it work, it’s Georgia State.

“The bottom line,” he said in an email, “is that Georgia State has figured out as well as any higher education institution in the country how to dramatically improve student success without limiting access – precisely what virtually every community college also needs to do.”

Georgia, which has a separate system for technical colleges, seems to be gradually reducing the number of two-year colleges in its university system by combining them with each other or with four-year universities.

Belle Wheelan, the president of the regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said Georgia has been going wild with its mergers, which her association has been examining.

“Georgia has gone kind of Texas-sized on mergers,” she said. “It has taken it on bigger than any other state.”

Many of the details of the Georgia State merger are yet to come. As with other recent mergers, state officials kept the plan secret from most interested parties – including faculty and students – until shortly before it was announced. The Georgia Perimeter president's office declined to comment.

One of the questions is how a new performance funding model in Georgia will be applied to the new Georgia State, said Claire Suggs, the senior education policy analyst at the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Suggs wondered how Becker’s administration will manage a research institution being merged with a two-year college.

“They are different student populations and so what may be successful with students at a four-year institution may not translate easily to students at a two-year institution,” she said.

There will also be immediate budget challenges to address. The system projects that Georgia Perimeter will lose $12 million this year and nearly $10 million next year because of enrollment declines and the way the state funding formula works.

Becker said he is meeting today with Georgia Perimeter’s interim president, Rob Watts, to talk about the “budget issues” that system officials made clear will be a challenge for the merger. Watts’s predecessor, Anthony Tricoli, was forced out of his job in 2012 because of a budget shortfall that system officials blamed on his administration. Tricoli last year filed a lawsuit that accused several state higher education officials of conspiring to make him the fall guy.

An assistant to Watts decline to make him available to speak and referred questions about Georgia Perimeter’s view of the merger to the system office.

Several faculty senate leaders from both Georgia State and Georgia Perimeter did not respond to emails seeking comment.

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