Georgia’s technical college system braces for more budget cuts

Teaching more with less

Gov. Nathan Deal has recommended the Technical College System of Georgia receive about $305.9 million in state funding for the 2014 fiscal year. That’s a reduction of nearly 17 percent compared to what the system received about five years ago. The proposed cut for next year would be in response to a drop in enrollment.

Fiscal Year … Enrollment

2008 … 152,911

2009 … 163,655

2010 … 197,059

2011 … 195,366

2012 … 170,860

Source: Technical College System of Georgia

Accreditation concerns

In response to state budget cuts, the Technical College System of Georgia has increased its reliance on part-time instructors. They are cheaper to employ because the system doesn’t have to pay them benefits.

About 70 percent of the system’s instructors are part-time and Commissioner Ron Jackson warned that the high figure could threaten accreditation status for colleges that are up for review over the next couple of years. Those schools are:

Athens Technical College

Augusta Technical College

Chattahoochee Technical College

Columbus Technical College

Okefenokee Technical College

Southern Crescent Technical College

Wiregrass Georgia Technical College

Source: Technical College System of Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal plans to re-evaluate proposed funding cuts to the state’s technical colleges that, if not changed, could lead to layoffs, campus closures and the elimination of some programs.

At a time when the governor is urging colleges to produce more graduates, his original plan called for the Technical College System of Georgia to lose about $24 million next year from state funding used to teach students. The cut, which was included in his 2014 fiscal year budget proposal, reflects a drop in enrollment.

A spokeswoman said Friday the governor will “revisit” the plan because proposed changes to the HOPE grant could result in a smaller enrollment drop than anticipated.

Deal has said the state needs about 250,000 more college graduates by 2020 to meet workforce needs. About 50,000 of those graduates are projected to come from technical colleges, said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, a fiscally liberal think tank.

It’s too early in the 2014 budget cycle to say how steep the reduction will be to technical colleges. System leaders know the state needs to cut spending, but warned it will be difficult to absorb additional reductions after years of cuts forced by the recession and sluggish recovery.

“There’s no doubt about it, we have a lot of challenges ahead of us,” technical college system Commissioner Ron Jackson said. “We’re looking at layoffs and every other option available.”

State funding is driven by enrollment and one uncertainty is how many students will attend.

The technical college system dropped by about 24,500 students to 170,860 last year and projects a loss of about 4 percent this year. It may rebound next year because of scholarship proposals that would make colleges more affordable.

House Bill 372 would make more technical college students eligible for the HOPE grant by changing the eligibility requirement to a 2.0 grade-point average. That’s down from the current 3.0 rule and a return to what existed before lawmakers overhauled HOPE in 2011 to prevent it from going broke. Nearly 9,000 students lost the grant last year because they couldn’t maintain a 3.0.

Deal supports the bill and also proposed increasing HOPE payouts by 3 percent. He also recommended additional financial support for students pursuing technical college degrees in practical nursing, commercial truck driving, and early childhood care and education.

“For the good of the students as well as the state, the governor wants to help as many Georgians as possible to earn a higher education in technical schools,” spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said. “The governor will work with legislators this session to revisit the technical school funding.”

While students would benefit from the proposed changes, problems would remain for the system. Budget cuts could harm seven colleges soon up for accreditation renewal, Jackson said.

Accreditors have warned the system about its reliance on part-time instructors, who while knowledgeable are rarely available after hours to help students. About 70 percent of the system’s instructors are part-time. They are cheaper to employ because the system doesn’t have to pay benefits.

When Lanier Technical College’s accreditation was up for renewal, the team sent by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools warned they wouldn’t recommend approval unless there was more full-time faculty, Jackson said. The system spent about $500,000 in emergency funds to hire more people.

Lawmakers remain concerned about the system because its programs have attracted and kept business in Georgia.

“There is a lot of interest in trying to help them out with these cuts,” said Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, chairman of the House Higher Education budget subcommittee. “The system has a strong history of being a good investment for the state. We don’t want to jeopardize that.”

The system has already made numerous spending cuts, such as campus mergers. The system used to have 33 colleges but will be down to 24 when another merger is completed in July.

“They have cut to the bone,” Ehrhart said. “They don’t have much more to cut.”

Tuition and fee increases will help a bit. Tuition increased from $75 per credit hour to $85 per credit hour in January, and students also paid a new $50 institutional fee. Students who take online classes will pay another $50 fee starting in the fall.

Higher tuition and fees could raise as much as $28 million next year, depending on enrollment.

“That is catch-up money,” Jackson said. “This money will at least help us hold on, but it doesn’t let us get ahead.”

The system needs to get ahead if Georgia is to meet its goal of graduating more students.

The combination of budget cuts and enrollment drops in the technical college system makes it unlikely the state will reach its graduation goals, Suggs said.

“To say the technical colleges are in a tight spot would be an understatement,” she said.