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Guest column: Keep focus on education
Merging 2-year-colleges, tech schools not in students' best interest
0614Martha Nesbitt
Gainesville State College President Martha T. Nesbitt

Some recent articles in the press have addressed a proposal for merging the University System of Georgia's two-year colleges with the state's technical colleges. There have been many opinions expressed but no in-depth study or explanation of the potential results of such an action. It is a shame that such an important public policy issue is being politicized, when the focus should be on education and students.

The University System of Georgia is respected throughout the higher education community nationally because it provides many points of access with strong academic programs. Our flag-ship universities enjoy strong reputations as well as our comprehensive universities such as North Georgia, Kennesaw and West Georgia.

Many of the students who graduate from these institutions enter higher education through the system's two-year and state colleges that are known as "access" institutions. Access is defined as a college having liberal admissions criteria and low tuition. The university system works to assist students with wide ranging abilities, and many thousands of students each year enter the system through our access institutions.

"Access with Excellence" has been demonstrated. Because we are a system and can track students through our colleges and universities, we know that those who transfer from the access institutions do well academically and have high graduation rates from the universities. The system's core curriculum that all students take in the first two years allows ease of transfer and prepares students for their academic majors.

Since the university system was organized in the 1930s, there have been two-year colleges serving as portals for students to enter and work towards a baccalaureate degree or higher. In the 1960s, Governor Carl Sanders and Board of Regents' Chairman, Gainesville's own "Bubba" Dunlap, initiated an expansion of access to higher education by increasing the number of two-year colleges and technical institutions.

There was a conscious decision that these two types of institutions would remain separate because they served two very different missions. The two-year colleges would prepare students for a baccalaureate degree and beyond — our teachers, business leaders, attorneys, nurses and doctors.

The technical institutes would prepare students with specific job skills for immediate entry into the work force. Both types of institutions are needed and this arrangement has worked very well.

\Those who say that merging the two systems would allow more opportunities for Georgians have yet to explain how, because there would be no increased opportunities. Currently students who want to attend technical colleges can take classes tuition-free under the HOPE grant, regardless of their academic performance. Students with B averages from high school can attend the two-year colleges on the HOPE scholarship. In addition, there are many other forms of aid to assist students needing financial assistance.

In the first year of Gov. Roy Barnes' tenure, he established an Education Task Force that included a consideration for merging the university system's two-year colleges and the technical colleges. I attended some of those meetings, and no one from either system wanted to merge. Leaders from the technical colleges and from the university system strongly supported the separate arrangement and stated that joining these institutions would undermine the mission of each. What has changed?

Throughout the state, there are ample demonstrations of "seamless" education. There are hundreds of cooperative arrangements between system access institutions and technical colleges to accommodate students who decide after entering technical colleges that they want to earn an associate degree. For example, there are almost 30 joint programs currently between GSC and Lanier Technical College. This is just one example of several cooperative agreements we have with technical colleges in our area.

In the past few years, however, the technical college system has been lobbying to offer associate transfer degrees, which involves a great deal of duplicating what the access colleges in the university system do. There is no need for this duplication.

The opinion has been expressed that a merger would save money, yet no hard data has been collected. Anyone who has studied other states will know that, at most, there are minimal savings. Worse is the undermining of collegiate academic quality in an attempt to try combining two very different types of institutions.

According to a national educational research council, educators in California are currently concerned about how the merger in that state has weakened the baccalaureate preparation performance by two-year institutions. The same has been true in Kentucky.

The major point here is that no one has gathered sufficient data to guide a decision that could considerably weaken higher education in Georgia and dismantle a university system that has served millions of Georgians. I urge extreme caution in considering a proposal that could have such serious repercussions for both the students of Georgia and the institutions that have served the state so well.

While we should always look to increasing opportunities for Georgia's students, educational quality must be our primary concern. Both can be accomplished by strengthening both systems of higher education in Georgia in their distinct missions.

Martha T. Nesbitt is president of Gainesville State College in Oakwood.