First impressions on the GSU merger

As a recent Georgia State alum, I was more than a little surprised to find out that Chancellor Hank Huckaby is soon expected to present a proposal to the Board of Regents recommending that Georgia State merge with Georgia Perimeter College.

In my mind, the idea of a merger immediately raises serious questions as to the definition of Georgia State’s academic mission and to where the school fits in the larger scheme of things, none of which are particularly consoling — for either GSU or GPC students.

While I haven’t seen the formal proposal yet, perception is everything. And I’m all too aware that Georgia State already carries a reputation as a “commuter school” on its back, despite the school’s best efforts. Plus, GPC isn’t exactly known as an academic powerhouse. The merger of the two could be dangerous.

Over the last decade, Georgia State has made significant strides in transforming its campus toward a more traditional university model with the addition of FBS football and thousands of dorm rooms on campus. With the GPC model, I can’t help but think that GSU is taking two steps back to move one step ahead.

Particularly, I’m concerned with the following issues that may or may not be resolvable:

  1. It has the potential to hurt Georgia State’s academic reputation and the value of alumni degrees. Quite simply, GPC is known as a school that virtually anyone can get into with the hope of transferring to a larger research university like GSU or UGA after completing two years of basic classes. Further, I doubt that most of the faculty at GPC is qualified to teach at GSU. To absorb 20,000+ junior college students, something tells me Georgia State would have to radically alter its academic requirements — at least for the first few years.
  2. It could easily dilute the brand that GSU has worked to develop. How will each campus be known? Will they be division of Georgia State University a la GSU-Decatur or GSU-Dunwoody? How will those degrees look? Or will they be specialized like Georgia State’s existing satellite campus in Alpharetta but carry the full weight of the school?
  3. It would effectively eliminate the largest junior college in the state, making it harder for less qualified students to get into and pay for college. Even if GSU lowers its standards, I still expect it to be somewhat selective, particularly for its nationally-ranked programs, such as the risk management degree in the Robinson College of Business.
  4. It will reinforce negative stereotypes about Georgia State’s student body. As I noted above, GSU has invested millions of dollars over the last decade to develop on-campus housing to improve the educational experience and reputation of the school. With five new campuses and more than twenty thousand additional students, it will be all the more difficult to create a unified campus experience and escape its “commuter college” reputation.
  5. It may hurt the chances of the Turner Field project going through. Why build a second downtown campus if you now have five more in the surrounding metro area?

Admittedly, I think the last one could go either way. With more students will come additional athletic fee money, which could help support the Turner Field development. The ability to claim “largest school in the state” would be nice, as well. And down the road, this may be a good move for Georgia State once it gradually grinds its way through the rankings on the back of its top and more selective graduate programs again.

But bigger isn’t always better. To illustrate the point, I challenge you to name five “top tier” universities with over 40,000 students off the top of your head. It’s not very easy, and there are only a few. Trust me, I checked.

In other words, GSU runs the risk of effectively becoming UCF. Whoopie.

However, one things is for sure: GSU will never be the same if this goes through. Double or nothing on that.

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UPDATE: Well, it’s official. The Board of Regents approved the application to merge Georgia State with Georgia Perimeter under GSU’s banner, effectively making it the largest school in the state. The proposal will still need to be approved by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which could take up to 10 months, before a final vote is made.

Stay tuned for additional updates and thoughts.

UPDATE #2: Thanks in large part to important clarifications about the consolidation by President Becker in media interviews and a town hall meeting, I’m convinced the deal will ultimately benefit GSU after all. Read more here.

 

 

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This is the personal page of Chris Shattuck -- an Atlanta-based media professional with a background in business reporting, nonprofits and agency PR.

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