A proposed consolidation plan to merge two Middle Georgia colleges could benefit students and the region, local officials said Thursday.
Macon State College and Middle Georgia College are slated to become one consolidated institution under a plan proposed by University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby.
If approved, the consolidation could lead to an increased number of program offerings at the consolidated college to include some graduate programs and possibly university status, said Macon Mayor Robert Reichert. These additions could attract more people to the community as both commuting and residential students, he said.
“I’m very excited about this,” Reichert said. “I understand that it is not going to be without some degree of consternation and angst for some people, but the overwhelming good that will inure to our region because of this is so significant. This is something that we can all get together and applaud.”
The consolidation is part of a statewide effort to increase college completion and access, with a goal of reducing administrative costs and functions, Huckaby said in a statement, as he released recommendations Thursday to consolidate the Middle Georgia schools and six others into four institutions.
The proposal will be reviewed by the Board of Regents at its meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, with the final decision resting with the board.
Former state Rep. Larry Walker, a Perry resident and at-large member of the Board of Regents, said he is confident the board will approve the recommendation.
Striving to improve amid tough economy
The University System’s budget has been cut by $1 billion over the past four years, Walker said, adding that in that same period, student population has risen by 48,000, forcing the board to consider new options.
Officials are unsure how much money the proposal will save, but John Millsaps, University System spokesman, said that is not the focus of the mergers.
The University System is striving to find new ways to increase and strengthen academic options and distance learning while dealing with limited resources, Millsaps said.
The goal is to reinvest any savings, which he said the system anticipates will come from merging administrations, into academics. Job cuts are possible, but there are no estimates on where or when that would happen.
State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, called the plan “the right thing to do” during these economic times.
“In a continued effort to build a world-class educational system here in Georgia, it is imperative to develop cost effective strategies that will further boost Georgia’s competitiveness in the global marketplace and thereby increase our ability to attract an innovative and highly-skilled workforce,” Staton, chairman of Appropriations of the Sub-committee on Higher Education, said in a news release.
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, agreed, applauding the board for looking for efficient ways to save taxpayer dollars.
“My hope is that we’ll save money but also be able to reinvest money back into the classrooms, which will only be a good thing for the students who are there,” he said.
However, the idea is not popular with everyone.
Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross, told The Associated Press he was blindsided.
Hatfield, who serves on the House Higher Education Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, represents an area also affected by the consolidation plan.
“I’m flabbergasted by the whole thing,” he said. “That’s a monumental decision, and you’re going to roll that out a week before you vote on it?”
Bleckley County Commissioner Robert Brockman said it would be premature to comment on the merger at this point, and phone calls to Cochran Mayor Cliff Avant were not returned Thursday. Middle Georgia College is based in Cochran and Bleckley County.
Walker said schools included in the plan were chosen based on a number of factors, namely geography and mission. Guiding principles also included avoiding duplication of academic programs.
The merger would allow for a more regional school setup, Reichert said. As opposed to competing smaller units, it will form a coordinated effort that makes more programs available.
Macon State, headquartered in Macon, has additional campuses in Warner Robins and on Robins Air Force Base, and Middle Georgia College, in addition to the Cochran location, has a campus in Dublin and the Georgia Aviation Campus in Eastman.
No campuses would be closed under the proposal, according to the University System.
The Macon State and Middle Georgia College consolidated institution would house nearly 10,000 students spread over five campuses and take on a new name.
Reichert said he expects Macon State’s Macon location to be the primary campus for the majority of students in the regional institution. That, he said, would add stature and prestige to the community -- “another feather in our cap” for attracting future residents and businesses.
Macon State President Jeff Allbritten would head the consolidated institution, but both campuses will be equally involved in the consolidation process, according to a statement from Macon State.
“As to (Middle Georgia College President Michael Stoy’s) future, I can’t really speak to that at this point, but he certainly has a big job to do in the coming months,” Millsaps said.
Stoy commented on the plan via a news release, saying, “We view this as an excellent opportunity to expand educational programs while continuing to provide access to all citizens in the Middle Georgia region.”
Macon State and Middle Georgia College officials declined to comment beyond a Thursday news release until the Board of Regents acts next week.
If approved, the consolidation process will begin immediately, lasting 12 to 18 months with a target date of completion by fall 2013, Millsaps said.
Potential consolidations was one of several initiatives launched by Huckaby in September.
In addition to the consolidation of Macon State and Middle Georgia colleges, Huckaby recommended the consolidations of Gainesville State College and North Georgia College and State University (in Dahlonega); Waycross College and South Georgia College (Douglas); and Georgia Health Sciences University (August) and Augusta State University.
Walker, the at-large board member, said while he doesn’t think this will be the last of the mergers, he doesn’t expect there to be a wave of back-to-back consolidations.
The Technical College System of Georgia recently underwent several consolidations, merging 15 institutions into seven.
“The biggest thing we dealt with out there was uncertainty of what the mergers would mean to the communities,” said Mike Light, spokesman for the Technical College System.
That fear, he said, has quickly gone away as they created bigger, stronger colleges and provided more resources for students.
“Communities did not lose the campuses,” Light said. “They didn’t lose the facilities. The name may have changed, but everything else has stayed business as usual.”
From a business standpoint, the mergers have proved useful for the Technical College System, Light said, stressing that the most important factor was the benefit to students.
Since the first consolidation in 2009, the system has saved more than $5 million annually off its entire budget, Light said.
“We kind of look at this as colleges are a business,” he said. “Just like a business we strive to deliver our product more efficiently and find the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”
Light said there likely had been some conversation between officials in the state technical college and university systems, noting there are several differences between the organizations’ operations.
“This is something that’s not easily done,” he said. “If you look around the nation, there’s not a whole lot of this going on, even though there’s more and more talk about it. As the economy gets worse and worse, we have to look at things that maybe a couple years ago we wouldn’t have even thought about.”
To contact writer Caryn Grant, call 256-9751.