University System to set new rules for Georgia colleges

Classifying Georgia’s colleges

The 31 colleges in the University System of Georgia will have clearly defined missions under a proposal to be voted on Wednesday by the State Board of Regents. This classification will guide the programs they offer, the students they attract and the research they conduct. Here is a summary:

Research Universities: These schools offer a broad selection of undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and professional programs. The heaviest research will be conducted at these schools. Member universities: Georgia Tech, Georgia Regents, Georgia State and University of Georgia.

Comprehensive Universities: These schools also offer undergraduate and graduate programs. They can have doctoral programs, but the graduate focus will be on master's degrees. They are expected to conduct research, but it won't be as heavy as the research universities. Member schools: Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State, Valdosta State and West Georgia.

State Universities: These schools may offer limited associate's degrees, although they concentrate on undergraduate and graduate programs. Five of them also offer very limited doctoral programs. The schools: Armstrong Atlantic, Columbus, Georgia College, Georgia Southwestern, North Georgia, Albany, Clayton, Fort Valley, Savannah and Southern Polytechnic.

State Colleges: This category has two subgroups. The first will have a balance of bachelor's and associate degrees. Schools: Abraham Baldwin, Atlanta Metropolitan, Coastal Georgia, Dalton, Georgia Gwinnett, Gordon and Middle Georgia. The other group will emphasize associate degrees and offer "very few" bachelor's degree programs. Schools: Bainbridge, Darton, East Georgia, Georgia Highlands, Georgia Perimeter and South Georgia.

Source: University System of Georgia, draft policy on institutional function and mission

For the first time in almost two decades, the University System of Georgia is clearly spelling out this week what types of degrees each of its 31 colleges should offer and how heavily they should focus on research versus teaching.

It is a campaign, in so many words, to end mission creep — the unnecessary duplication of too many programs that had sprouted even during the recession.

Now, the system faces a new economic reality, with fewer state dollars available to it and a slim appetite for tuition increases. Leaders felt they had to draw a line.

There are two main reasons why: The University System can’t afford to let every campus offer every kind of degree to every Georgian; and it wants to help students find the right match academically.

“This policy is not intended to be limiting or restraining,” Regent Dean Alford said Tuesday, as the system’s governing State Board of Regents voted unanimously in committee to back the changes. “It is meant to provide clarity and direction so the system operates as a system,” he said, and not a group of individual rivals.

With final approval expected Wednesday, the changes — including a raise in status for Kennesaw State University — would go into effect immediately.

The decision stands in stark contrast to just a couple of years ago, when the regents approved vast duplication and expansion of nursing, education and other programs across multiple colleges and universities.

Now they want to send a message that the system is trying to be a good steward while balancing its mission for research, teaching and service.

By coincidence, regents also expect Wednesday to approve a new, five-year strategic plan designed to emphasize the state’s push to increase how many college graduates it produces.

In effect, the proposal to end mission creep will act as a kind of road map about how to do that.

“It’s still a commitment to meet the needs of Georgia,” said Houston Davis, the system’s chief academic officer, “but just be smart about doing it.”

With the change, the system will officially limit the expansion of academic programs or at very least make it harder for new programs to appear without justification.

During the recession, lawmakers and others criticized the University System for expanding academic programs while other state agencies had to cut millions from their budgets.

The regents allowed six two-year colleges to offer four-year bachelor’s degrees in areas such as health care, science and technology. This approval in 2011 came even though some of the degrees were already offered nearby — for example, Darton State College was allowed to offer a bachelor’s degree in nursing even though Albany State University (5 miles away) and Georgia Southwestern State University (30 miles away) already taught it.

Meanwhile in 2010, Gov. Sonny Perdue and others questioned a proposal for the University of Georgia to offer three new engineering degrees in areas long dominated by Georgia Tech. After months of debate, a divided regents narrowly approved UGA’s request.

The last time the system made a wholesale policy change like this was in the 1990s. At the time, the system elevated Georgia State University into its premier category of research institutions, among other changes.

Now, the system is making an even bigger distinction among all its colleges about what they should focus on. This is likely the most spelled out it’s ever been to both institutions and faculty and students.

Among the most notable changes, metro Atlanta’s Kennesaw State University and the University of West Georgia in Carrollton will join Georgia Southern and Valdosta State universities as being considered among the state’s comprehensive universities, which typically focus on undergraduate and master’s level courses and some doctoral programs.

It is a bump up in prestige for both institutions and second only to the state’s top research category.

“It’s a validation of the direction Kennesaw State has been moving over the last decade,” said its president, Dan Papp. By giving his campus a “higher level prestige,” Papp said the changes would likely give Kennesaw access to more money, through efforts like grant-writing and private fundraising.

The system still has its four premier research institutions: Georgia Tech; Georgia State; UGA; and Georgia Regents University, which houses the system’s public medical college.

But the system is also clarifying how it groups its lower-tiered, more local universities and colleges by the programs they emphasize and the type of students they would enroll, such as those interested in two-year degrees versus four-year programs.

“In certain (academic) fields, there will be more pressure — perhaps of a degree that’s been a bachelor’s degree but the field is going toward requiring a master’s degree,” said Davis, the architect of the proposal. “Well, we need to be thinking about which of our institutions are positioned to be able to handle that level of change.”

The same thing applies to state universities that aspire to expand doctoral programs.

“We have to think long and hard, first of all, do we really need that? Is there really that demand?” Davis said. “The same dynamic is in play, whether you’re moving up or wanting to maintain a role.

“The more levels of degree you add to an institution, it’s almost inevitable that your costs associated with delivering those programs go up, and that’s an easy way to look up and realize that you no longer have a cost-effective access tier as far as tuition levels,” he said.