Three years ago the University System of Georgia Board of Regents tried to improve single-digit graduation rates at Georgia Perimeter College by merging the two-year college with its Atlanta-area neighbor, Georgia State University.
Georgia State had been praised widely for improving its completion rates and closing equity gaps, and state leaders hoped that success would translate to the community college.
The merger decision appears to have paid off. Georgia Perimeter, which had a 6.5 percent graduation rate in 2014, increased that three-year rate to nearly 15 percent last year. Its completion rates, which measure graduation and transfers to four-year institutions, increased from 41 percent to 58 percent during that same time period.
Gaps in academic achievement between students of color and low-income students and their white and wealthier peers also have closed at the college, which is now called Perimeter College at Georgia State University. As of last year, graduation rates for white, Hispanic and low-income students are roughly the same. The 12-percent graduation rate for black students still trails the 15 percent rate for white students. But both rates have increased since 2014, when they stood at 10 percent for white students and 4 percent for black students.
"We’ve seen rapid progress in retention and graduation rates," said Timothy Renick, Georgia State's senior vice president for student success. "It has been better than we thought it would be in a relatively short period of time."
The college has made other gains in student achievement. For example, more students are staying at Perimeter beyond one year. Year-to-year retention rates increased from 58 percent in 2014 to 70 percent last year, according to data from the institution.
Georgia State officials cite the introduction of predictive analytics for helping to increase academic achievement at the two-year institution. The university has become a national leader in using predictive analytics to review hundreds of risk factors for students and to alert advisers when students get poor grades or are on the verge of dropping out. Officials at the four-year institution replicated that system for the Perimeter campuses.
Consolidating Perimeter, which enrolls roughly 20,000 students, and Georgia State, with approximately 50,000 students, saved about $8 million in administrative expenses for the two-year college. The merged colleges no longer needed two presidents, two vice provosts or two English department chairs, for example, Renick said. Georgia State took $3 million of that savings and used it to boost student services and to hire additional financial aid counselors and advisers.
By hiring 30 advisers, Perimeter went from 1,000 students per adviser to 400 per adviser. And students are using the service more often.
“When we took over Perimeter College back in 2015-16, there were about 3,000 students sitting down and meeting with academic advisers over the course of a year,” Renick said. “This past year over 50,000 one-on-one meetings have occurred between Perimeter students and academic advisers.”
Before the merger, students typically would meet with an adviser when they felt there was a problem. Now, with predictive analytics, the college is more proactive and prompts students to talk with an adviser if, for example, they register for a class that doesn’t match their degree program or if they’re failing assignments in a math course.
Another intriguing aspect of the merger is the more seamless transfer process between the university and the two-year institution, said Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute.
“It’s something we all should be paying attention to, because the majority of community college students want to transfer and get a bachelor’s degree,” Wyner said. “The four-year transfer rate is hugely important. They’ve gone from below the national average to about the national average. Those are impressive data.”
About 80 percent of entering community college students say they want to earn at least bachelor’s degree, but only 33 percent transfer to a four-year institution within six years, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
For Perimeter graduates and transfer students, the merger also has had a positive effect on the public's perception of the two-year college.
“Seeing ‘Georgia State’ on a transcript will get more attention than just seeing ‘Georgia Perimeter,’” said Lee Brewer Jones, an English and humanities professor at Perimeter, who has taught at the community college since 1992. “Just by being affiliated with a [research] institution, even though we’re not an R-1 college, it has an impact on how people view our students.”
Georgia State and Perimeter enroll students with some similarities. More than 70 percent of students at both institutions are nonwhite, and 60 percent are low income. But students at the two institutions also tend to have different needs.
For example, about a third of students at Perimeter, an open-admissions college, need remedial math, reading or English. Georgia State converted all remedial classes at Perimeter to the corequisite model, which allows students to take college-level course work but also receive additional support such as tutoring.
Similarities in student demographics have helped Georgia State better understand how to help Perimeter students.
For example, the university expanded its microgrants to Perimeter students in 2016. The program helps cover unmet tuition and fees for students who would otherwise be dropped because of nonpayment. The university gives about 300 microgrants per semester to Perimeter students, averaging $900 each.
The university also introduced learning communities to Perimeter, requiring all incoming freshmen to participate last year. The communities allow groups of about 25 students in the same degree program to take a few courses together. The expectation is that the communities help students establish friendships, form study groups and build peer networks.
Academic outcomes have improved for students who participate in the communities. They earn more credits and are retained at a slightly higher rate. And first-year students in learning communities earned on average a 3.18 grade point average compared to 3.09 GPA for those students not in a community.
Jones said many of the concerns Perimeter faculty had about the merger when it was first announced never occurred, such as a mandate for professors to have terminal or doctoral degrees.
And he and his peers have become more focused on encouraging students to earn their two-year degrees, even if they plan to transfer.
“I tell students, ‘I hope you take time to get an associate degree before you transfer,’” Jones said. “I don't know if I always thought to say that before, but I make a point of saying, ‘Get your associate.’ That's an emphasis that comes from the highest levels of the university.”
Merging Community Colleges
Georgia isn’t the only state to merge community colleges in recent years. Significant enrollment declines and budget pressures have forced other institutions to consider consolidating. For example, the University of Wisconsin System started merging the state's 13 public two-year campuses with seven of its four-year universities last year. And the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system had considered merging the state’s 12 community colleges, but that plan was killed last year by the system’s accrediting agency.
Ricardo Azziz, the chief officer of academic health and hospital affairs at the State University of New York System, was president of Georgia Health Sciences University when it merged with Augusta State University to create Georgia Regents University. That institution is now known as Augusta University. Azziz said more colleges and states will consider these types of mergers in the future.
“There are a number of trends driving this, and one is a need for continuing education or lifelong education,” he said. “The second driver is pure demographics. The number of students in community colleges is decreasing. The number of high school graduates is decreasing, and the economy is improving.”
Even if the economy declines, he said it wouldn't dramatically increase enrollment at community colleges.
Some researchers have been warning community colleges that enrollment is expected to plummet by 2025. Enrollment in the two-year sector has already been on a decline since around 2010. And last fall, community college enrollment was down 3.2 percent from the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Mergers between community colleges and four-year institutions tend to be more successful when they are in the same geographic region but don’t physically combine, experts say. They also are more successful when the community college retains its open-admissions policy, continues to offer noncredit programs and serves the community's work-force needs.
“Part of the reason why Perimeter and Georgia State have done better is that they’re still at separate locations,” Azziz said. “The community college structure is still physically different.”
But mergers between two different types of institutions can be tricky. The missions and cultures of two-year or technical colleges are different from those of four-year colleges or research universities, Azziz said.
Faculty and staff initially were concerned about merging the two Atlanta-area institutions. Jones said Perimeter faculty worried that the smaller college would be taken over by the university and become a low priority to the larger institution.
“We have retained the autonomy and academic freedom that we had before the merger,” Jones said.
Mergers can bring a lot of good to the institutions involved, Azziz said. But they are still complicated and difficult.
“We need to recognize that while a lot of good things can come out of them and some mergers have been quite successful, the reality is they are difficult things to do,” he said. “They have to be thought out, managed well and have strong government support.”