Is this the future of access to higher education?
This fall the institution where I teach, Georgia Perimeter College, is observing a strange pair of milestones. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary, while at the same marking our final days of existence as an independent entity.
In January, we will become part of Georgia State University, while continuing to operate under our old name for another six months. The transition will be complete in July, when we take on a new identity as Perimeter College of Georgia State University.
Some might think this a strange marriage — between a large, multicampus two-year college and an even larger, up-and-coming research university. And yet it’s not exactly a brand-new model. Pennsylvania State University, for example, has branch campuses strategically located around the state, functioning essentially like community colleges while still bearing the Penn State name. Likewise, the University of South Carolina system also has a handful of two-year campuses.
Still, among faculty at Georgia State and Georgia Perimeter, initial reactions to the announcement last winter were mixed — at best. Understandably, faculty members at the former worried that merging with a two-year college might water down their university’s research mission and impede its progress toward the upper tier. Meanwhile, their counterparts at the community college were justifiably concerned about mass layoffs and wholesale changes to our curriculum.
Most of those fears seem to have been allayed, more or less. As the outline of the new, consolidated institution slowly takes shape, it appears that the main campus of Georgia State, in downtown Atlanta, will continue to focus on research, offering bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Meanwhile the Perimeter campuses will retain our mission of providing access to higher education — a mission that includes lower admissions standards and tuition than the university, while offering associate degrees and preparing students for transfer.
Speaking of students, the merger potentially offers significant advantages for them. Those who qualify for admission to the main campus will have the option of attending there or going to one of the Perimeter campuses for a year or two first. That could be a boon to suburban students who don’t relish the thought of either living downtown or making the (frankly hideous) commute, as well as students who are struggling financially to afford college.
Meanwhile, students who apply to Georgia State but aren’t accepted by the main campus will be directed to one of the Perimeter locations. From there, if their academic performance is acceptable, they can move seamlessly downtown — or, if they prefer, transfer to any other institution, just as they could when Georgia Perimeter was a stand-alone college. (We have always sent more transfers to Georgia State than anywhere else, so in that regard this particular merger, if there has to be one, makes a lot of sense.)
In other words, despite the obvious challenges presented by consolidating two physical entities, two faculties, two cultures, two student populations, and two databases (I’ve been told that last one has been the hardest part), life will not change much for most of the people affected. At both institutions, it seems, faculty, students, administrators, and staff will still be doing pretty much the same things we were doing before the merger.
Such is the picture that has emerged over the past 10 months. But it was far from clear, back in January, how all of this would work. In my column last March, “The Middle of the End for Community Colleges,” I suggested that the acquisition of Georgia’s largest two-year college by the state’s largest university might just be another harbinger of what I had been fearing for some time: the impending death of community colleges as we know them. I feared that two-year campuses in many states would start lining up to become four-year institutions, while other community colleges closed their doors and still others were subsumed by larger, more powerful entities. I concluded that things weren’t looking good for access education.
I have since had seven months to reflect, to read the reports of the consolidation committees, and to discuss all this with my colleagues — and I have completely altered my view. I now believe that the type of merger we’re seeing here in Georgia — between a large state research university and a two-year college — might just hold out the last, best hope for access education in this country.
Before I go any further, let me explain what I mean by “access education” and why I’m concerned about it. After all, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing politicians extol the virtues of community colleges, with proposals in several states and even nationwide to make the first two years of college free. Community colleges are in the headlines everywhere you turn. How could they possibly be endangered?
The problem is that, in my experience, whenever politicians say “community college,” what they actually mean is “technical college.” They’re not really talking about what you and I think of as college — they’re talking about training and work-force development. And that appears to hold true, by the way, regardless of political party.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with technical colleges, or with work-force development, for that matter. People need jobs, the country needs skilled labor, and not everyone is interested in traditional college. Generally speaking, welders make a lot more money than teachers or social workers.
It’s just that, when we redefine “community college” to mean “technical college,” we risk leaving out all of those students who desire a traditional college education but either can’t get into a four-year college initially or can’t afford the tuition.
For those students, a community college has long been the saving grace: They can attend for a year or two while improving their grades, all at a lower price, and then transfer when they’re ready. That has become a tried-and-true formula for hundreds of thousands of students. A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that nearly half of all graduates from four-year-colleges in 2014 attended a two-year campus at some point, most of them for at least three semesters.
Those are the very students who get caught in the pinch when some two-year colleges become four-year institutions, with higher tuition and admission standards, while others, bending to the political winds, de-emphasize transfer education in favor of technical education. It appears to me, as I suggested back in March, that we are in the process of creating a two-tier system, where only the best and brightest get to attend a university and receive a traditional education, while the rest are shuffled into technical programs — whether they want to be or not.
What I’m calling “access education” is actually the transfer function that community colleges have performed so admirably in the past, in tandem with their technical, job-training function. And many, perhaps most, two-year colleges still do provide both functions. But for how long, given the pressure to focus on job training and work-force development?
Increasingly, that’s where the state money is going, as a growing number of legislators around the country subscribe to the position that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t really belong in college — we just need to help them acquire some skills so they can get a job.
The answer to this dilemma, it dawned on me, might just lie in the kind of merger my two-year college is currently undergoing — essentially, being taken over by a large state university.
Georgia Perimeter, although a fine institution in its own right, has always been cash-strapped, forever near the bottom in state appropriations per student. Recently, we’ve been even more vulnerable, following a severe financial crisis in 2012 that led to the departure of our then-president and several other top administrators.
Georgia State has far more resources than we do, financial and otherwise. It has more stability, financial and otherwise. And it has a great deal more clout at the state level. It’s also, incidentally, home to a lot of smart people, who, along with our own smart people, can help us continue to figure out better ways to increase student success — something, it turns out, Georgia State is pretty good at.
I don’t know what might have happened to our college and its access mission if not for this merger. We might have morphed into a stand-alone four-year university, to the detriment of many current students. We might have been merged with one of the local technical colleges, which in Georgia are part of a separate system. That’s been discussed in the past. We might even, eventually, have had to close our doors, with the various physical campuses being parceled out to other area institutions.
I just know that, as we become part of Georgia State, our access mission appears to be not only safe but valued as an important function within the university. I’m happy to have been wrong in my original prediction — and grateful. Because what I initially thought would be the end of my college might just turn out to be its salvation.
Author Bio: Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges.