State urged to soften college budget cuts

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers were urged Wednesday to soften the blows to public colleges and universities, which face up to $600 million in cuts as part of the state’s budget crisis.

University system Chancellor Erroll B. Davis was grilled for two hours during the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. Earlier this week, the system released a plan that included closing satellite campuses, shortening library and student center hours and capping enrollment. Lawmakers have asked the state Board of Regents to plan for $300 million in additional cuts — on top of the $265 million in cuts already in the works for the next fiscal year.

Davis said tuition increases and cuts will likely be unavoidable. But he warned that the quality of public education in the state is at stake and that accessible, affordable, high-quality institutions cost money.

Lawmakers repeatedly praised the university system as a special and unique entity in the state and urged a spirit of cooperation in finding a solution that preserves the gains Georgia has made in higher education.

“Nobody wants to see draconian cuts,” said Sen. Seth Harp, chair of the Senate Education committee, who asked Davis to “do the least amount of damage, with the sacrifice spread of the entire education community.”

In Wednesday’s hearing, Davis addressed a number ideas raised in his last meeting with lawmakers, ranging from a 35 percent tuition increase to consolidating institutions and cutting employee salaries or semesters.

While a 35 percent tuition increase could generate $175 million, such a sharp rise could raise questions of affordability and access. A third of Georgia students are on the HOPE scholarship. Davis said he would prefer less of an increase or to raise tuition over time instead of all at once.

Davis balked at the idea of dramatic cuts to faculty and dismissed the notion that some professors earned too much.

University of West Georgia graduate student Will Avery, who led a group of students from across the state in a rally at the Gold Dome on Wednesday, called the proposed cuts “not acceptable.”

“Our best students will be going to other states that are going to support their education,” said Avery, a 29-year-old graduate student in history and education.