The recommendation made to Gov. Sonny Perdue by the Tough Times or Tough Choices working group to merge two-year colleges and technical schools has both educators and students in Newton County leery of what their educational future may hold.
The working group was appointed by Perdue in July of last year and they were given the task of finding ways to make Georgia more "globally competitive." The group was asked to build off work done by the Investing in Education Excellence Task Force to determine "how Georgia might reform its education policies and practices to cause needed change for its educational system," according to a release from the governor’s office.
Though no decisions have been made as of yet, a rough draft of the group’s recommendations has been circulating among educators, many of whom have chosen not to comment on the draft or as to whether Perdue will act on the group’s recommendations, until a decision has been made by the governor’s office. Under the recommendation, the University System of Georgia would focus "exclusively on research, four-year degree programs and graduate degree programs. Community colleges are currently a part of the university system.
The ability for students to transfer between two and four-year colleges would still be allowed and, according to Mike Light, the executive director of communications for the technical college system of Georgia, the merger would make is easier to move between technical and four-year colleges.
"It would put the two-year institutions under one umbrella and everything else under the university system."
Light also stressed that if Perdue were to accept the recommendation, the merge of two-year and technical schools would not happen overnight.
"There is a lot of rumor and speculation right now, but nothing has been decided at this point," he said. "Some folks think this is imminent or on the near horizon and it is not.
"It is not something that would or could be done in the blink of an eye. It would require a lot of work between the two systems."
Sally Wheeler, an associate professor of English as well as the joint enrollment coordinator for Georgia Perimeter College, believes that merging two-year and technical schools into one could be detrimental to the students attending GPC.
"Under the merger proposal students who don’t qualify for a four-year school would only have the option of a technical school. They would earn a two-year technical degree that would not allow them to transfer to any four-year school in the state. Right now, students who begin at one of the state's two-year schools can transfer to a four-year program. In fact, at GPC, students who meet certain criteria can, under the GPC Transfer Agreement Guarantee, transfer to a selected four-year college.
"Our students deserve this choice," she continued. "The University System of Georgia, according to the governor, should focus on ‘high achieving students.’ GPC takes students who don't meet that definition and helps them to reach it."
Many students at the GPC campus were not aware of the recommendation to the governor’s office but according to 24-year-old Melissa Smith, a mother of two; she has neither the time nor the resources to attend a four-year college and said that GPC’s flexible schedule is what has allowed her to pursue higher education.
"I just came back to school," she said. "But with my kids I can’t go full-time and I couldn’t afford to pay for a four-year school either. I want to get an education, but I’m a mom first and I need to be here for my kids too."
Jeff Williams, age 19, said that his grades out of high school were not good enough to get him into a four-year university and that he hopes GPC will help that.
"I applied at UGA," he said. "But my grades weren’t good enough. I figured if I could get my core classes out of the way here and raise my GPA then in a couple of years I could transfer to the university – but they don’t take technical credits so if they merged the colleges then I’m screwed. There would be no way I could get my degree."
Wheeler said the reasons given by Smith and Williams as to why they chose to attend GPC are echoed throughout the campus.
"Georgia Perimeter College and the University System of Georgia are doing outstanding jobs of serving the students in Newton and surrounding counties," Wheeler said. "Students make the decision to improve their lives by continuing their education after high school. Some of them need a bit more help academically in one area such as math, and many of them don't have the money to leave home immediately after high school. GPC gives these students the opportunity to complete two years of work and then transfer."
Ashley Jackson, a 32-year-old mother of four said that GPC is allowing her to finish her degree of which she is just three credits shy.
"I was in school when I got pregnant with my daughter," she said. "I decided that I should focus on my family and now that all of my kids are in school I’ve decided to come back and finally finish my degree. It would be a shame if I wasn’t able to do that. I certainly wouldn’t go all the way to Atlanta to Georgia State or anything like that for a couple of credits, but I would like my kids to have one parent that is college-educated. I certainly can’t tell them they have to go to college when their parents didn’t."
Shannon Davis, economic development director for the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s board has not yet had the opportunity to see the draft, so they cannot currently comment on it.
"I will say that the chamber is well behind workforce development and secondary education," she said. "And both Georgia Perimeter and DeKalb Tech are filling a need in our community. Personally, I see a need for both."
According to Wheeler, "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."
"As a teacher, a parent, a grandparent and a citizen of Georgia, I am against any proposal that limits the educational choices of our children and I am in favor of two-year colleges that serve the students of Georgia," she said. "I hope people will read the proposal and then let the governor and their state representatives know their opinions."