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Posted: August 25, 2012 9:03 p.m.

GPC has plan to overcome challenges

Georgia Perimeter College has been hammered this year with staggering budget cuts and lowered enrollment and revenue, but interim President Rob Watts said students shouldn't see any day-to-day difference in their education. Watts said he believes the college will be on track to grow again in one year.

Watts visited Covington Thursday and said the college was going to have a tough year given its initial $25 million in budget cuts, which caused 282 layoffs (nearly all administrative), and another $1.6 million in expected cuts, but he said the college would be OK if it could hold the line this year.

Even in the midst of the pain, the college continues to move forward with new programs, including a bachelor's degree in health informatics - using technology to improve medical record keeping - which will be housed at the Newton County campus. Furthermore, the college is hopeful it will play a big role in partnering with Baxter International to meet the mega medical manufacturer's needs.

New financial controls
"We think we're on a path now to turn this around in a year. We've made some hard decisions, I mean some really painful decisions, to tell 282 people they no longer had job and it wasn't their fault," Watts said. "So we think we're on a path by this time next year where we're not going to be looking back but will be looking ahead."

Watts brought in an entirely new finance team from outside the university to ensure the college never again sees the massive overspending that occurred under ousted former president Anthony Tricoli.

Auditors from the University System of Georgia are expected to soon release a report detailing how the college got into its financial troubles.

Ron Key, the local campus's top academic officer, said all staff and faculty are doing with less to make sure the college devote resources to quality education. Key, who also serves dean of humanities and fine arts for all of GPC, said everyone is chipping in as he and his fellow deans are teaching classes for no additional pay, as is Watts.

Teachers are also making fewer paper copies and moving more documents to the college's online site.

The Newton campus lost 26 employees, though as with every other campus, no cuts were made to tenured or tenure-track faculty. For example, instead of having two local employees cut grass, the Newton campus employs only one, while the college has a crew that rotates among all the colleges. In addition, Watts said the college is looking for volunteers to help fully staff areas like tutoring, where wait times may be a little longer.

"The thing we must do is keep the quality in the classroom," Watts said. "That's why we didn't lay off any faculty members and we took it all in the administrative side and on the staff side. We wanted to make sure we had the right kind of quality professors in front of those students."

Regarding the remaining $1.6 million in cuts that will have to be made, Watts said it's his intention to not cut any more personnel. The cuts come from the state, which has asked state entities to hold 3 percent of their budgets, Watts said, in case state revenues are down.

Because the state won't finalize its annual spending bill until around April, the college has to make cuts anyway without knowing the final answer. Watts said he and other officials will lay out a plan during the next few weeks, looking for more areas to economize.

Lower enrollment
Enrollment this fall is down about 10 percent across the college from last year's approximately 27,000 students, mainly due to new, more stringent admission standards that allow fewer students needing remedial English and math classes.
The Newton campus has been hit hard as its enrollment has dropped nearly 16 percent from last year as of Friday's numbers. Newton's enrollment is 2,294, while it was 2,723 last year, according to Key. The enrollment had steadily increased over the years, including big jumps last decade; the Newton campus had only 1,634 students in 2006.
The enrollment drop is not unique to GPC, as enrollment was down at the majority of institutions around the state, Watts said.

Future plans for Newton campus
The Newton campus is one of GPC locations most primed for growth, as the college owns 100 acres and is using roughly half, Key said. The campus has two academic buildings, but has room to add a handful more in the coming years.
Once enrollment starts to push 3,000, Key said new classrooms and laboratory space for science classes will be a big need.

"There is plenty of room out there to grow. This community really did it right; they didn't try to do it so constrained," Watts said. "We wish in some of our other places we had 100 acres. Sometimes colleges and other endeavors don't think long-term when they accept 15, 20, 25 acres, and then they can't park anybody."

One of the big changes that will come to the Newton campus next fall is the addition of a health informatics bachelor's degree program. Headed up Lee McKinley, who comes from a business background, the five-semester program (including a summer semester) will build on the core education already available at GPC to allow students to get a bachelor's degree in one of the country's fastest growing fields.

McKinley said health records have been kept for 100 years, so the field isn't new, but said the health industry is falling behind the times in terms of technology and dealing with the ever-increasing number of records. Once GPC's program is up and running, it will be one of only three in the state for a field that is one of the top 10 fastest growing job areas in the U.S., McKinley said.

GPC is also exploring more partnerships with Clayton State University in an effort to extend both of those college's reaches, which would allow GPC to offer even more 300 and 400-level classes to its students.

Finally, Watts and Key both emphasized the huge role they hope Baxter will play in the growth of the Newton campus in particular. The college has already formed a strong partnership, as Baxter officials held negotiations at the campus before committing to Newton County.

Watts was hopeful that between the Technical College System of Georgia and the University System of Georgia, the state would be able to form a strong educational path for Baxter and other medically and scientifically-geared employees with GPC playing a lead role.

When asked why students and parents should still have confidence in GPC, Watts said it was because the college was never lost its core focus of providing academic quality, accessibility and affordability. A credit hour costs around $100 at GPC, Watts said, which is less than half the costs at some four-year universities.

"I have worked at several two-year colleges but I have never been to one where the community supports the campus as much as this community does," Key said. " Wherever I go, people tell me how much they embrace the Newton Campus and the affordability, access and quality that it provides for the community."

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