Chancellor implements task force, sets high standards

By Greg Gelpi

The number of students enrolling in higher education continues to go up, while funding for higher education continues to go down.

University System of Georgia Chancellor Thomas Meredith said despite this environment he intends to make education in Georgia the best in the country, He doesn't want that to even be in question.

"My goal is to make sure that we're the best higher education system in the country," Meredith said. "We may already be there, but I need confirmation."

One hurdle standing in his way is the percentage of students who attend colleges and universities.

"We're not pleased with the percentage of students participating in post-secondary education," Meredith said.

He said the state ranks 48th in the country in the percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds in higher education and 49th in the percentage of ninth graders who will finish high school. About 49 percent of ninth graders don't graduate from high school.

Meredith is working on a partnership to "change the culture of the state." The chancellor has formed a task force to study graduation and completion rates, the number of college and university students who earn a four-year degree in four years.

Through a partnership with parents, churches and civic groups, the task force will concentrate on kindergartners. Addressing children at a young age will encourage higher education at a later age, he said.

The task force "will convince young people that a high school diploma is a given," Meredith said.

Students shouldn't question whether or not they would graduate. They should be questioning where they would go once they graduate, he said.

"That should be the only question, not whether you graduate from high school," Meredith said.

He said that these goals are at the heart of all the system does and that on all of his office's publications is the line "Creating a more educated Georgia." Meredith plans a full "rollout" of the task force in October.

"I can just tell you it will inspire every student in the state," Meredith said. "It will be an effort to shift attitudes."

Focused on where the state is now and where it will be, Meredith said his office is conducting a statewide assessment of education from colleges and universities down to elementary schools, which ultimately feed colleges and universities.

"We're studying where the state of Georgia will be in 2015," Meredith said. "We know the biggest growth in the state will be in metro Atlanta."

It took 40 years for the system to grow by 200,000 students. Forty years ago, the system had about 47,000 students, and now has about 247,000. Meredith said the system would gain another 200,000 in just 12 years. Clayton College & State University is a "key player" in what is "probably one of the fastest growing sections of the state."

"The major issue we will be facing is the gap, and we're not talking about the clothing store," Meredith said.

Graduation rates will level off in 2008 for most of the county, but not for Georgia, he said. Along with this, state funding is at its lowest since 1967. An ever-widening gap is being created between enrollment and funding.

"We're not going to let quality drop," Meredith said. "I'm not going to let quality drop on my watch."

He said there are about 1,000 unfilled college and university teaching positions because of funding cuts, and some universities have imposed or are planning to impose enrollment caps.

Meredith gave barnacle scrapers to all system presidents during the summer to "scrape" all expendable funding form their budgets. Since then, the system has shaved about $9 million.