College mergers are a bold move

For the first time in its history, the University System of Georgia has plans to contract.

Eight public college campuses in the state will become four when the consolidations are complete, which may be as early as the fall of 2013. The mergers, when effected, will reduce the number of member institutions in the state’s University System from 35 to 31.

The reason for the mergers is simple — money. While the U.S. and Georgia economies appear to be on the mend and revenues are improving, they are improving over the disastrous numbers from the Great Recession. It will be some time before funding for government reaches the point where it was just before the bottom fell out.

Like other state government offices and agencies, the University System is being forced to do with less money even though the enrollment at the system’s colleges and universities has increased. The crunch is being felt all around, particularly with students who are seeing tuition hikes coupled with reductions in HOPE scholarship support. The University System has seen its state funding cut by a billion dollars over the past four years.

How much the merger of the eight colleges — Waycross College and South Georgia College in Douglas; Augusta State College and Georgia Health Sciences University; Middle Georgia College and Macon State College, and Gainesville State College with North Georgia College & State University — will save is anyone’s guess. University system Chancellor Hank Huckaby hasn’t said how much he expects it to be, though you have to believe someone has a target figure in mind.

Whatever the savings, they will come from reduced overhead, not fewer campuses. The campuses will remain open, University System officials say, but administrative functions will be combined in the consolidated institutions.

As you would expect, the decision Huckaby announced last week that was approved by the regents on Tuesday is not particularly popular in the impacted communities, just as it would be unpopular here if the regents had decided to merge Albany State University with Darton College. There are calls for the regents to reconsider the decision, with the most vocal opponents in Waycross. No doubt, the communities involved are concerned — and rightly so — about loss of identity. Also, while no campuses are planned for closure now, the communities with campuses that lose their on-site administrative leadership will feel vulnerable in regard to their future prospects.

The process of implementing the regents’ decision won’t happen overnight. Consolidation committees at the affected schools haven’t been formed yet. But given the financial prospects the system faces, it’s unlikely that the colleges and their communities will be able to muster the political clout needed to reverse the course the regents have established.

The system has to make changes to do its job of educating students in an inhospitable financial climate. There likely will be more unpopular choices made. Doing things the same old way just isn’t going to work.