In less than a month, students will be reporting for fall semester classes at the public colleges that make up the state’s University System.
I’m sure they will be a smarter group than the students who entered college with me back in my freshman days. We hope they will be a more diverse group as well, reflecting the state’s growing black, Latino and Asian populations.
Unfortunately for Georgia’s future, there will be fewer of these students attending our public colleges and universities than there were a couple of years ago.
After growing to a record level of 318,000 students in 2011, the combined enrollment at our public colleges declined to 314,000 in 2012 and then to 309,000 in 2013.
Enrollment numbers aren’t dropping because the state’s colleges do a bad job of educating their students. To the contrary, the University System compares quite well with other systems.
Enrollment is declining in part because many potential students have been priced out of higher education by endless tuition increases. In a state hit hard by the Great Recession and resulting economic downturn, more people who want to attend college can’t afford it because tuition keeps getting higher.
With one exception, no other state has been as trigger-happy as Georgia when it comes to raising tuition. A recent study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association found tuition and fees in Georgia’s public colleges increased by 93 percent during the period from 2008 to 2013. The only state that increased tuition more was New Mexico.
Part of the problem is that the legislature slashed funding to the University System over the past decade, during the same period when lawmakers were also cutting state funds for K-12 school systems. The Board of Regents was compelled to make up for the funding cuts by raising tuition.
Another part of the problem, however, is the University System refuses to reduce the money it spends on its top officials.
The rank-and-file employees who worked for government agencies and school systems often were furloughed or laid off during the economic downturn of 2008-13, and those who could hang on to their jobs didn’t get a pay increase for years.
Those cutbacks didn’t apply to the people at the highest levels of the University System.
Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson will receive $773,646 in total compensation during this fiscal year after getting a recent salary increase of $16,980.
Georgia Regents University President Ricardo Aziz will be paid $675,379 after receiving a $25,379 bump in pay. Georgia State President Mark Becker will be paid $570,604, thanks to a $20,604 salary increase. University of Georgia President Jere Morehead will be paid $567,380, which includes a $17,380 pay hike.
University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby, who got a $21,250 pay raise this year, will receive a total compensation of $518,250.
Then there is Michael Adams, who stepped down last summer after 16 years as the University of Georgia’s president. Normally, a state employee who retired from his or her job would have to be content with drawing a pension. Not Adams. The Board of Regents agreed to pay him $2.7 million over the five-year period after he resigned.
Compare those numbers to the salary paid the governor of Georgia: $139,339 a year.
Whether you like or dislike the governor, there is no argument that he holds the most important job in state government. He administers a yearly budget that totals about $42 billion in state and federal funds, and he decides how the state will provide vital services to its residents.
The top officials in the University System are eminently qualified people, but should they be getting paid four and five times what the governor makes when they hold jobs that are demonstrably less important than his?
Virginia Carson of South Georgia State College, the lowest-paid full-time president in the University System, will make $193,974 this year for running a school with an enrollment of about 2,000 students. She will be paid 39 percent more than the governor, who runs a state government serving 10 million residents.
The average taxpayer would be justified in asking: Why?
The promising high school graduate who can’t afford to attend one of our colleges might well ask the same question.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.