State merges more campuses. Georgia saves money, but is something lost?

Some proud alums of Southern Poly still mourn the merger with Kennesaw State. Mergers continue as Georgia looks for ways to control costs.
Some proud alums of Southern Poly still mourn the merger with Kennesaw State. Mergers continue as Georgia looks for ways to control costs.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

The University of System of Georgia is merging four more campuses, sealing its reputation as a pacesetter in college consolidations. An article in University Business said Georgia had "what is likely the nation's most aggressive and high-profile campus consolidation program."

What is lost and what is gained when colleges consolidate? The obvious gain is financial, but are there intangibles that are sacrificed when a campus loses its identity and leadership?

Many Southern Polytechnic State University alums fought that school's merger in December of 2014 with Kennesaw State University. The Regents talked a lot about what Southern Polytechnic students would gain from the KSU brand and leadership, but never spoke about what might be lost in the merger.

As one proud Southern Polytechnic grad told me: "What will be compromised is the quality of programs and the reputation of the degrees Southern Tech now provides and has been providing for over 66 years.  To understand the value of Southern Tech as it is, ask the employers of the school's graduates."

Noting that Southern Polytechnic ranked among most difficult colleges in the country to earn an A, a graduate asked: "The question here is will SPSU's rigorous curriculum and recognition for the same be maintained in a merger with KSU.  My contention is no, it will not.  A large contingency agrees that the current programs at SPSU will be compromised by any such merger."

Feelings of alums aside, do mergers help or hurt students? Research on college consolidations has focused on the efficiencies and savings, which typically are realized later, not in the short-term.

A new MIT study examining five recent mergers within the University System of Georgia found positive results. Researcher Lauren Russell in the MIT Department of Economics looked at persistence in those merged campuses, whether students stayed in college.

Russell concludes:

Future work will be needed to pin down what aspects of consolidations lead to efficiences or quality improvements. Do consolidations directly expand the production possibilities frontier? Or, on the other hand, do they allow governing boards to justify layoffs, program cuts, or other changes that would be politically infeasible but desirable in the absence of consolidation? Both may have played a role in the USG experience as institutions report increasing hires of academic affairs personnel through capturing economies of scale and changes to advising policies that were more easily made in the midst of reorganization. Better understanding the sources of what appear to be productivity gains is critical as other governing boards consider whether consolidations could be similarly successful in their public college systems.

With that background, here are the latest consolidations by the University System of Georgia:

"The consolidation of these institutions will enable our University System to better serve students, broaden or redesign academic programs offered in the coastal and southwest Georgia regions, and reinvest savings into academics to improve student success," said Wrigley. "While the ultimate purpose of consolidation is to serve students better, we also have the opportunity to tailor degree programs for the workforce needs of the area and strengthen our role in the region's economic development."

Today's action by the board marks the fifth round of consolidation within the University System and follows the six guiding principles for consolidation approved by the board in November 2011: http://www.usg.edu/consolidation/guiding_principles.

The consolidation timeline calls for the consideration of both new institution's plans by the board of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges by the end of this year, followed by Board of Regents consideration of the new institutions in early 2018.

Implementation teams, with representatives from the campuses, will soon be formed for the two consolidations. The two, separate implementation teams will be charged with the responsibility to work out the many details associated with each consolidation.

Campus and community listening sessions will be held in the coming months to seek and hear input on ways to best design the new institutions to serve students, their respective regions and the state. A consolidation website will be created and dedicated to providing information and updates about each consolidation for their respective campuses and communities.

Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, founded in 1908 and was later designated as the agricultural state college of the University System of Georgia. ABAC's mission is to engage, teach, coach, mentor and provide relevant experiences that prepare the graduate for life. For more information visit www.abac.edu.

Armstrong State University, part of the University System of Georgia, was founded in 1935. The university offers more than 100 undergraduate and graduate academic programs in the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Science and Technology, the College of Education and the College of Health Professions. Armstrong serves approximately 7,100 students at its main campus in Savannah and a regional center in Hinesville. Its diverse student population comes from 43 states, the District of Columbia and 67 countries. For more information, visit www.armstrong.edu.

Bainbridge State College, a state college of the University System of Georgia, provides an accessible, affordable, and excellent education for the diverse population of southwest Georgia and beyond through certificates, diplomas, associate degrees, a Bachelor of Science in Management degree, as well as through continuing education, adult education, and collaboration with other educational providers, resulting in life-long learning, economic development, and graduates empowered for success in a global society.

Georgia Southern University, a public Carnegie Doctoral/Research University founded in 1906, offers 119 degree programs serving 20,673 students. Through eight colleges, the University offers bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs built on more than a century of academic achievement. Georgia Southern is recognized for its student-centered and hands-on approach to education. Visit GeorgiaSouthern.edu.

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