Just recently, southwest Georgia and the HBCU community nationwide experienced the merger of two colleges into what is now the largest public Historically Black College and University in the state of Georgia. Albany State University and Darton State College, both located in Albany, Georgia, have merged together to form one large university that will be named Albany State University. However, this merger does not come just from an aftermath of good news, or because the two institutions saw fit to combine together and expand to offer greater opportunities for the region, however, more so from the aftermath of corruption.
In October, the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia had to fire four financial aid officers from ASU after finding mishandling of funds dating back to 1985. Former students and former students who are now current employees of Albany State were found, after the conduction of an audit, owing over $100,000 in student loans, however, enrolling in courses at the university to avoid payment. In addition, these students were allowed to continue to take out loans while in school without proper protocol and procedure being followed by financial aid department personnel. The student(s) were allowed to withdraw from classes and file appeals in order to continue to receive the aid. These irregularities were brought forward when the newly appointed financial aid director for the university noted issues surrounding improper financial aid awarding, and contacted the school’s internal audit department.
In addition, the university had to deactivate 15 programs. Some of the programs up for deactivation are programs many would say do not belong on the list, or any list of such for that matter, for deactivation. These programs include English, history, music education, speech and theatre, and science education. Provost Abiodun Ojemakinde stated the reason for the deactivation of the programs were due to enrollment declines and budget deficits. The programs are not being eliminated from the institution according to Provost Abiodun Ojemakinde, just suspended from enrolling new students and can be reactivated within two years, however, the call for the deactivation of such programs as English and science education would raise flags.
Also, the overall enrollment numbers went down at ASU and Darton. Down over 10 percent, no other institution in Georgia experienced a decline larger than 3.2 percent in the state other than ASU last year. ASU enrollment numbers are down over 25 percent in the past five years, and Darton’s enrollment numbers are down 14 percent since they saw their highest numbers in 2012. With overall enrollment numbers going down, aside from mentioning declining enrollment numbers in certain degree areas, in addition to, the financial aid scandal occurring at ASU, the need to merge was overwhelming.
University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby stated in a news release, “The consolidated institution, Albany State University, will continue to serve the HBCU mission and build on its mission and that of Darton State to serve students, the community and region,” Huckaby said. With Albany State being a HBCU, many feared heritage and importance would be loss after the merge. Hence, the two schools followed different missions, where Albany State is a regional state university rooting in serving the underseved and discriminated and Darton has more so been an associate degree granting community college. The enrollment body demographics at the two different institutions are dissimilar as well, with ASU having a 90 percent African-American student body, while Darton has a 45 percent African-American and 49 percent White student body.
Is or does higher education operates like a business? It sure does seems that way with all of these mergers going on. There are concerns that like with any other business deal, must be taken into consideration. Hence, this holds true for the merging of two universities. “I am typically suspect of Southern governments and higher education boards as to their sincerity in dealing with HBCUs and treating them fairly. History tells us to be very, very cautious,” said Marybeth Gasman, professor of higher education and director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. “….it is important to note that the alumni situation is very difficult and for a good while there will be separate alumni groups.”
In the area of university and college merges, Georgia ranks top of all states with the most merges. The merges have undergone some criticism, however, the criticism has not completely halted its occurrence. Critics, scholars, and constituents on both sides have voiced their opinion on the matter. Issues brought to the table have included, how will students be accommodated if one of the campuses closes? If economies of scale is a priority, how or what will be the determining factor for the retaining of faculty and staff, and degree program offerings? Claire Suggs, the senior education policy analyst at the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute recently said during her critique of another previous merger that has taken place in the state, how will a new performance funding model in Georgia be applied to the new merger? “They are different student populations and so what may be successful with students at a four-year institution may not translate easily to students at a two-year institution,” she said. Her statement, which was said in response to the recent Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College merger, however, will no doubt be applicable to this situation.
Georgia currently operates under two main higher education systems, the University System of Georgia, USG, which governs the state’s colleges and universities, and a separate system for the state’s technical colleges called the Technical College System of Georgia. It appears that USG has been gradually reducing the number of two-year colleges by combining them with each other or with four-year universities. Belle Wheelan, the president of the regional accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said “Georgia has gone kind of Texas-sized on mergers,” “It has taken it on bigger than any other state.”
The University System of Georgia, concerning the Albany State University and Darton State College merger, although coming after found corruption at one institution, still see promise for the higher education system in the southwest area of the state. “We recognize this is a historic milestone for Albany State. We are committed to continuing to serve the HBCU mission and building upon the mission to serve an increasingly diverse student population and community. We also recognize the key role Darton has played in meeting the access mission and offering workforce related associate degrees. We will maintain both missions under the consolidated institution and believe this strengthens public higher education in Southwest Georgia,” said Huckaby. Other recent merges in the state included, Georgia State University with Georgia Perimeter College to become Georgia State University, Gainesville State College and North Georgia College & State University, which became the new University of North Georgia, and Augusta State University and Georgia Health Sciences University, which became Georgia Regents University.