The state Board of Regents, which makes the decisions on how the University System is operated, voted on April 14 to raise tuition rates at Georgia’s public colleges by as much as 9 percent.
It was not an unusual event; the regents have raised tuition rates every year for more than two decades. A recent study showed that Georgia had raised college tuition rates more than any other state except New Mexico over the preceding five years.
There is a valid reason for many of those increases. During the long economic slowdown, the General Assembly imposed substantial funding cutbacks on the University System. Higher tuition rates have made up for many of those reductions.
You would logically expect that the money raised from higher tuition rates would be used to hire instructors, maintain classrooms and provide a positive learning environment for students. If you thought that, you would be partly wrong.
One month after they voted to raise tuition, the Board of Regents met again and voted to give salary increases to the presidents of Georgia’s colleges and universities. The legislature put money in the budget to give rank-and-file state employees a 1 percent pay raise. It seems only fair that college presidents should get a similar salary increase.
College presidents, who are already among the highest-paid state employees, got more than just 1 or 2 percent raises. Some of them effectively won the state lottery and became millionaires.
Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson saw his compensation increased by 41 percent, going from $773,646 to $1,093,646. University of Georgia President Jere Morehead got a 43 percent bump, boosting him from $567,380 to $811,374.
Georgia State President Mark Becker really hit the jackpot. His annual compensation of $570,604 will be raised a whopping 87 percent for this fiscal year and the next through payment of bonuses totaling $1 million ($500,000 each year).
These raises are not being paid because the workload at Georgia’s colleges has suddenly increased. To the contrary, student enrollment in the University System has actually declined in recent years and the number of colleges has been reduced through consolidation.
Chancellor Hank Huckaby, who drafted the pay plan containing these salary bonanzas, says presidents must be paid astronomical salaries because they might be tempted to take a job in another state.
Said Huckaby: “Higher education has become a competitive market for leaders. We compete for the best, and we want to keep them.”
I have a lot of respect for Huckaby and think that he’s served honorably during a long career in state government. On this one, however, he’s sadly mistaken.
The quality and reputation of Georgia’s colleges goes far beyond the identity of whoever happens to be president. Those presidents don’t hold a single class or produce a single degree. That all happens because, collectively, faculty members teach and students learn.
Georgia Tech was one of the world’s great technology institutions long before Peterson became president and will still be great long after he departs. Similar statements can be made about Georgia State and UGA.
Look at it this way: The $1 million in bonuses paid to Becker means there is $1 million that won’t be available for scholarships or financial assistance to students who otherwise can’t afford to go to college.
The Georgia State Foundation, which raises money for scholarships so that people can attend the university Becker heads, said in its annual report: “Every innovation, every scholarship, and every life-changing experience at Georgia State happens because someone believed in our mission of student success and wanted to support it.” The key word there is “student” — not president.
A public college’s mission should be to give as many deserving students as possible access to higher education. The priority should be on teaching and learning, not on giving pay raises and perks to presidents who already make more money than anyone else employed by the state.
Gov. Nathan Deal has said he wants to increase the number of college graduates by 250,000 between now and 2020.
That’s not going to happen, Governor, when enrollment is declining and you keep raising tuition so much it becomes even harder for students to afford a college education. You may want to take a look at that.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.