The GPC-GSU conundrum

The many unanswered questions of an out-of-nowhere merger

When Troi Charity first applied to Agnes Scott College, her application was declined. So she turned to Georgia Perimeter College, a two-year college with five campuses around the metro region. That launched her to Georgia State University.

"I believe GPC was very important for me to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise after switching my major," Charity says. "It helped me adjust to college life after graduating high school and made the transition to Georgia State easier. I did better my first semester at Georgia State because of GPC."

Georgia students might lose that as an option under a new proposal to merge GPC with GSU. The Board of Regents last week approved the proposal, putting the Downtown research behemoth on the path to become the largest public higher education institution overseen by the University System of Georgia.

Some within the GSU community have applauded the move, arguing that it adds clout and could add more students to the ever-expanding university. Others have expressed concern over whether the school is prepared. What's been less discussed is the future of GPC's campuses — and more importantly, its students and the role it plays for others seeking higher education.

For the past few decades, the 51-year-old GPC has attracted many students because it's accessible and affordable. (Full disclosure: I attended GPC — where I served as editor of the student newspaper and quarreled with school leadership and the USG over Open Records, leading to a lawsuit — and GSU.)

For years, GPC has offered many minority, non-traditional, military veteran, and even undocumented students the opportunity to get a toehold in higher education. In the fall of 2014, GPC's reported enrollment consisted of 42 percent African-American students, the highest percentage within the university system. GPC has several programs in place to assist low-income and educationally disadvantaged students.

"GPC is a stepping stone to other colleges such as Georgia State," says Charity.

GSU says the GPC campuses will "continue to admit students into its associate's and certificate programs by standards consistent with the college's access mission." But the missions of these two institutions are different. GSU has evolved from a commuter school into a research university that is climbing the national college rankings. GPC is focused on getting students enrolled in school and prepared for major coursework in other colleges and universities. GSU's per credit hour cost is three times more than GPC's.

GPC is known to cater to students who are in need of "learning support" classes, which help bring students up to speed on topics they struggle with — and it's uncertain if a research university, such as GSU, would continue that work. Anthony Tricoli, a former GPC president who resigned over a $25 million budget deficit, questions how those two cultures can blend.

"Asking these two institutions to 'merge' ... could either result in a watered down mission for Georgia State, or a mission for GPC that simply doesn't support about 70% of the incoming student population it enrolls," he wrote in an online response to what he said were reporters' questions. "Without a focus on access, this merger will result in a loss of students attending this merged institution."

There are other issues as well, some of which GSU officials still haven't solved, including the geography students might have to navigate under the new system. Mike Eden, a graduate of GSU who also transferred from GPC, wonders how some students would be able to access classes, some of which are only taught at specific campuses.

"Would GSU's buses go out to the old GPC campuses? I doubt it," he says. "Having five campuses, and then downtown Georgia State, I don't know. It just seems — it's massive — and I feel like a lot of students could get displaced."

The GSU-GPC merger is the latest consolidation proposed by the USG in recent years. During his reign, Chancellor Hank Huckaby has reduced the number of USG's institutions from 35 to 29. Last year, some students and faculty protested the merger of Southern Polytechnic State University and Kennesaw State University.

Each time, USG has made the announcements with little to no notice and zero public input or collaboration. It claims that such consolidations and mergers such as what's been proposed for GSU and GPC save cash. Yet it has not provided any projections about how much will be saved or, with past mergers, shown proof of how much money was saved.

The Board of Regents must still approve the GSU-GPC consolidation plan, which is expected to come together over the next year.

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