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The future of higher education in Georgia: The USG asks input from students, faculty and residents across the state

Georgia State President sits in crowd while listening
The University System of Georgia meets with faculty, staff, students and President Mark Becker to solicit input on the future of higher education across Georgia. Photo by Ada Wood | The Signal

The path of higher education in Georgia is up for discussion as the University System of Georgia charts the next four years with their 2019 strategic planning efforts. Georgia State served as the venue to kick off the five-event series on Sept. 3, allowing students and faculty from across Georgia to weigh in on the priorities and problems to solve in the coming years.

Georgia State University President Mark Becker provided introductions as the hosting university for the day’s event.

“We know there is still room for the USG and its member institutions to do even better,” Becker said. “If you think key points are missing, please speak up. If you have an idea about how the goals can be met, please say so.”

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As a backdrop to the path forward, Tracey Cook, executive vice chancellor for strategy and fiscal affairs at the USG, explained the current challenges higher education is facing in Georgia.

First, she outlined a demographic shift of the 15-24 age group in Georgia, with a declining population in rural Georgia and a growing population in North Georgia and metro Atlanta.

Looking forward, there’s also a need to look back. Specifically, during the most recent economic recession, the national trend of a decline in funds to higher education provided by the state didn’t skip Georgia.

“We can’t wait and hope that the dollars come back,” Cook said. “As a university system, we have to be more efficient, more affordable and graduate more students.”

The four goals of the USG and its strategic plan were explained by Angela Bell, senior executive director for research, policy and analysis. After explaining each goal, the audience provided commentary and suggestion to the USG.

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The process for developing the strategic plan began this summer and after setting its goals, the USG plans to gather input through September before integrating that into a developed plan in October and then presenting it to the Board of Regents for approval in November. 

 

Student Success

Degree completion, high quality academic options and the elimination of barriers to access and success for all Georgians defines “student success,” the USG’s first goal of the strategic plan. In a sense, it’s making education accessible and possible for all students.

Aliyah Jones, a student at Georgia State, said that focusing on input from socially conscious student organizations needs to be part of the planning and execution on individual campuses.

Hadejia Manais, the executive vice president of the Student Government Association on Georgia State’s Decatur campus, requested an increase in the variety of classes at two-year institutions, a sentiment that was later echoed by other colleges.

One Georgia State student brought forward a current complication she is facing this semester. Dianna Champ, a 50-year-old nontraditional student, said that the university has placed a barrier on her education, not allowing her into an online course she needs to take in order to graduate this spring.

Natalie Mellas from the University of North Georgia has been researching Hispanic-serving institutions and hopes there will be plans to assist a growing Hispanic population in Georgia.

 

Responsible Stewardship

This goal has two facets: ensuring affordability for students and optimizing efficiency within the system. On a micro scale, it’s reducing costs for students and on a macro scale, for the USG.
EVP Manais shared a concern about the cost of textbooks, and Leri Argueta, the assistant director for enrollment diversity at UNG, suggested providing a system or structure for universities to use to fundraise for scholarships.

“Efficiency is not always cost-cutting; there is a point at which containing costs does harm to goal one [student success],” a professor from Georgia Gwinnett College said. “I want to make sure as planning goes forward that we don’t get so caught up in saving money that we forget to do quality education.”

 

Economic Competitiveness

Equipping students with knowledge, skills and experience is key in making sure that they get the return they wanted out of an education and they can contribute that back to the Georgia economy.

“I would really love to see our students earlier equipped with career readiness skills,” Krysta Fry, assistant director for career advising and planning at Kennesaw State University, said. “Too often, we see our students starting to learn those work-based learning skills later on in their junior or senior year.”

Fry suggested a better incorporation of these skills into the general education classes taught to underclassmen. A faculty member from the UNG provided that interdisciplinary courses are a good way to improve these workplace skills.

Building connections between universities and corporations for better feedback on what they want and need from graduates was requested by Shakeer Abdullah, vice president of student affairs at Clayton State University.

Georgia Gwinnett College’s SGA president Chigbogu Ekemezie said internships, shadowing programs and hands-on experience is paramount for a student to see what they need for a specific career before fully committing to it.

 

Community Impact

The fourth and final goal is a little all-encompassing: to work with communities to improve the quality of life across Georgia. But it’s a chance for universities to form connections with and provide for communities of all kinds in and around their campuses.

One community of interest for many participants was the immigrant community. Some inquired about removing preventions on undocumented students from entering college and then further providing these students with in-state tuition. Some suggested providing a path for non-English speaking students as well.

Brent Johnson, a professor at Gordon State College, said that many smaller, two-year institutions forgo courses like African American or women’s studies.

“This is really an opportunity to interrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty,” a faculty member at Georgia Tech shared. “One segment of our community that is often forgotten about are previously incarcerated individuals.”

Byron Stokes, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, tapped into the system’s own community, that of universities, and encouraged more collaboration between them. 

“This is my second time coming to Georgia State,” Stokes said. “I think we need to work together more.”

A Georgia State University Police Department officer asked for the consideration of giving employees a bonus based on each level of educational attainment and providing the USG’s Tuition Assistance Program to the children and spouse of an employee.

Kaelen Thomas, speaker of the senate for Georgia State’s Atlanta campus SGA, voiced concerns for the safety of students and communities.

“Since January 2019, there have been 283 mass shootings across the United States,” Thomas said. “So, I would like to see in this strategic plan, a continued emphasis on increasing mental health resources and safety.”

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