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Education working group proposes overhaul
Report considers merger of community, technical school
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On Monday Gov. Sonny Perdue released the final recommendations of an education working group that proposed significant, “comprehensive” changes to Georgia’s education system at every level.

The group’s recommendations were based on the national education report “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” which suggested radically altering the U.S.’s education system in order to reverse America’s global economic and political decline.

The Georgia working group’s recommendations would affect every education level in the near and long terms and included suggestions to enable students to advance from high school to higher education more quickly, allow schools to create and recruit more highly-qualified teachers through education and pay changes and increase emphasis on analytical and creative thinking among early childhood and elementary students.

One of the short-term recommendations that would bring significant change and has caused a lot of debate locally and statewide deals with higher education and the creation of a comprehensive community college system by merging the technical colleges and two-year colleges.

Community college administrators and students have been leading the charge against this particular recommendation, including several members of the Newton County campus of Georgia Perimeter College. .

The Merger

Gov. Perdue appointed the working group in July 2008, and since that time the group met as a whole three times, all in 2008, on July 17, Sep. 18 and Dec. 15. The initial draft from the Dec. 15 meeting included a section under short-term goals that recommended, “charging the current Technical College System to administer all technical and 2-year academic programs offered in Georgia, thus building a Technical and Academic College System of Georgia (TACSG); b) charging the University System of Georgia to focus exclusively on research, 4-year degree programs, and graduate degree programs.”

This proposal met with loud resistance from members of the community college system. The draft was updated in January, and final April recommendations included an important change: the option either to combine the systems or leave them separate.

“Either (a) create a comprehensive community college system by merging the technical colleges and two-year colleges so there is a seamless entry point for all students, or, if the two systems are to maintain their separate identities, (b) create and enforce pathways for student transfer between institutions and systems by forming comprehensive articulation agreements that clearly establish procedures governing the transfer of credits from one institution or system to another and (c) ensure that all duplication of teaching and administrative resources between TCSG and USG institutions has been removed.”

Many educators, students and citizens don’t understand the rationale of this section, particularly parts (a) and (c), and oppose them for several reasons. However, working group members say the proposals are simply ideas that must be explored further.

Like Oil and Water

The most common argument against any merger is that community colleges and technical colleges have separate missions. Technical colleges prepare students for immediate entry into the workforce, while community colleges prepare students for entry to four-year universities.

Gen. David Poythress, a democratic gubernatorial candidate, has expressed concern about the merger, mainly regarding the school’s different missions.

“Technical education and community colleges are two different activities, like oil and water; both are liquid but they don’t mix. It’s a very simple and apt analogy to this,” Poythress said. “None of the professors or executives of any of these colleges or tech school feels that the merger makes sense. The thumbnail summary is that I see a proposed change which is of doubtful economic value, but represents a major shift of political control, away from (Board of) Regents to the (Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education).”

GPC English Professor Dr. Beth Jensen, one of the main opponents of the “merger” discussion, has sent numerous e-mails to colleges around the state and kept up with the draft changes.

“I think the system we have now serves our students the best,” Jensen said. “Any student who for whatever reason is not ready for his junior or senior years can go to community college, which prepares students for four-year institutions. That’s what we’re doing extremely well. The fact we’re transferring over 50,000 students, I’d say were doing something right. Why on earth would anyone want to disrupt that.”

Deal Alford, co-chair of the working group, said the group was only concerned with getting more students from high school to college. He said that many students who want to attend college are not getting the opportunity and the group felt they could help those students, whether through a “merger” or other ways.

He said one of the most important recommendations was the idea of increasing college work at the high school level. This “dual enrollment” will allow students to advance when they are ready. The idea of creating a combined system was tossed out as a possible way to achieve this goal, Alford said.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the conversation is not one of working on the issue but one of dealing with things that are just not true,” Alford said. “This is not a discussion about how to reorganize post secondary; it’s a conversation about how to maximize dual enrollment for our high school students. That is the only discussion that matters. Dual enrollment is a wonderful way to increase graduation rates.”

Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, said that the whole context for the conversation about a combined community system is based on providing more access to post-secondary institutions for our students. She said the working group was designed to be a high-level visionary group, focused on concepts, not on specific “action plans or implementation.”

Alford said the group was trying to think outside the box but also looked at systems in other states, some of which have combined community and technical college systems. Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia are examples of these states. He said the group also recognized two higher educations trends.

“As we looked at it, we recognized the USG had made a strategic decision not to provide any technical systems. Brunswick Community College is an example of a school coming out of the university system and switching to the technical system,” Alford said. “Number two, all of the two year (community colleges) want to become four year schools, and all of the four year schools want to become research institutions. It’s a natural evolution. Under the combined two-year system all the schools would stay two-year schools.”

Jensen did point out that a similar merger in Kentucky has resulted in a decrease in community college students transferring to four-year universities; the opposite of the intended effect. This story has been reported on in depth by the Louisville Courier- Journal, which has identified difficulty in transferring between systems as a problem.

Dr. Hugh Hudson, executive secretary of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors, said he has listened to the debate and doesn’t see any merit behind the combination of the two systems.

“We already have a seamless path within the University System of Georgia,” Hudson said. “I have listened to leaders within the University System of Georgia attempt to explain why this should be considered. My understanding is significantly at odds with what has been publicly stated. My analysis leads me to conclude that some within the political leadership in Georgia fail to understand the value of higher education and wrongly assume that technical training provides the same benefits to the individual and society that university education provides. They are mistaken. Those who are prepared for college education benefit as informed citizens as well as trained professionals.”

Other Issues

Jensen said that community colleges were not directly represented in the working group. Two officials were from four-year USG institutions, but no two-year officials were in the group. Jensen said two-year officials would have been able to add to the conversation and raise community colleges’ concerns in person.

Mathers said that because the group was so conceptual in nature, the organizers did not know what proposals were going to be discussed. Alford added that the USG representatives were there on behalf of all USG institutions, not just four-year universities.

Jensen also added that the comprehensive system was partially proposed to improve the transfer process from two-year colleges to four-year universities. However, she said GPC, in particular, already has extensive transfer agreements set up with several universities in and out of the state. If a student at GPC graduates with a certain grade point average, he is guaranteed admission into certain universities.

Alford and Mather said GPC does have good agreements, but these need to be more widespread across the state.

The Future

Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) said he is in the process of forming a Senate Study Committee to review the working group’s recommendations regarding post-secondary institutions. He said, when formed, the committee will travel around the state and listen to different ideas about future of our two year colleges.

“I want the legislature and the senate to have some voice in what’s going on. It’s a very important concept that (the group) studied,” Douglas said.

Douglas said he supports the idea of dual-enrollment and having high school students do college-level work, but he opposes any merger at this time.

Jensen and others have expressed concern that Gov. Perdue will write an executive order to put changes into place, but Mathers said the governor will carefully review the recommendations before deciding on his next step. Mathers and Alford both agreed that another working group would likely be formed in the future to study this combined college system idea in more depth.