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Our Views: Merging in mystery
Until we know more, its hard to gauge Regents plan to blend 8 state colleges
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Airlines do it. Phone companies do it. Even grocery stores do it. Mergers are nothing new.

We've become accustomed to seeing large business mergers in this economic era, one giant gobbling up another well-known brand. It's the nature of business.

But now that trend has made its way to Georgia's University System. The decision by the Board of Regents last week to consolidate eight state colleges into four came swiftly, and the impact of the plan won't be known for some time.

Among the schools designated for consolidation are Gainesville State College, with an enrollment of 8,569 students, and North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, with 6,067 students.

The combined new school with a yet-to-be decided name would include more than 14,000 students, ranking it as one of the largest universities in Georgia. The schools already share some services, but this will be a much larger step, one that remains clouded in uncertainty so far.

The other mergers would blend Macon State College with Middle Georgia College in Cochran, Waycross College with South Georgia College in Douglas and Augusta State University with Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta. All moves are scheduled to be completed by fall 2013.

Most business and government mergers usually involve a stronger entity taking over a weaker, underperforming one. That certainly isn't the case for either of our vibrant, growing colleges.

We're a bit perplexed as to why these eight schools were chosen to merge. Not all are geographically close; North Georgia and Oakwood are a good 45-minute drive, depending on the route you take. Meanwhile, there are state schools in Albany and Savannah located just a few miles apart that would seem to have been better candidates for consolidation.

Regents Executive Vice Chancellor Steve Wrigley said the University System's criteria for deciding which schools to merge included academic performance, enrollment patterns, degree offerings, student origins, transfer patterns, economic impact, budgets, faculty credentials and existence of current partnerships to see where mergers were possible.

The moves were promoted largely as a way to save money in tough economic times when budget cuts already have limited higher education in our state.

What we don't know is how much money it will save. And neither do the Regents.

University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby told The Associated Press last week no feasibility study had been done for the proposed mergers. That means the plan was implemented with the hope for such savings, but they won't really know until the details are ironed out.

There likely will be some savings found by eliminating duplicated administrative costs. GSC President Martha Nesbitt retires this year, so there will be no need to fill her shoes with a high-priced new president. Still, someone will need to oversee the campus, whatever the title and salary of that position may be.

Other offices likely can be combined, but it remains unknown just how much savings will result. No one knows for sure until committees appointed by the school presidents make their recommendations for what to cut, combine or expand.

Wrigley said the money saved from the mergers would go back into faculty pay and instruction. While this may only shuffle funds, any plan that can add resources back into instruction and salaries is worth pursuing.

And more money for faculty pay may be needed with the local merger. Regent Philip Wilheit of Gainesville said the plan would even out the salaries between instructors at the two schools, likely meaning a raise in pay for Gainesville State's professors.

Also unclear is how the change will affect tuition and student fees. Many choose a college like Gainesville State because it is more affordable. If merging into a university raises the costs, many students may find themselves in need of more financial aid to make the transition.

Beyond any financial benefits that may result, other changes could affect the degree programs offered. Expanding the fields of study could give Gainesville State students more choices, helping that campus become the four-year college it had been moving toward as it continues to grow.

When completed, the new combined North Georgia-Gainesville State will boast of campuses in Dahlonega, Oakwood, Watkinsville and Cumming in a wide-reaching system. A university that size will serve as a key community resource for research and brainpower, and an economic engine unto itself.

Still, it's hard to weigh the benefits or drawbacks of the merger until more details are revealed. One intangible downside is that one or both campuses could lose their unique identity. Each school's colors, mascots and brand will be assumed by the other, or perhaps both lost to a new name and look. That process itself could be costly, and how it will be paid for remains another unknown.

There is much we still don't know, but the merger plan is intriguing, at the very least. The process of how it will be implemented needs to remain transparent. There needs to be ample opportunities for all of those involved to offer opinions on what shape the new and improved school should take. After all, they have a lot invested in the schools and will be most affected by the merger. And state taxpayers who are funding it have the same right to be kept informed.

In the long run, the important goal is not just to save money but to make sure students are getting a first-rate education for the money they invest. If this merger plan achieves those goals, then it will be a worthwhile pursuit.