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Meredith: Increasing students, decreasing funds

By Greg Gelpi

Money woes continue to be on the forefront for University System Chancellor Thomas Meredith.

Meredith cited many financial concerns during his annual "State of the System" Address Wednesday, but vowed to keep the state's higher education as a leader in the nation.

Using a barnacle scraper as a symbol to his staff in recent years to "scrape" away inefficiencies in efforts to save money, Meredith once again turned to his prop.

"Our barnacle scraping process has helped us focus on those activities that are our core functions," he said.

Universities within the system have been scraping and Clayton College & State University President Thomas Harden said there's a limit to how much scraping that can be done.

"We've been scraping barnacles for two years now, and I don't know if we have more to scrape," Harden said. "I think the impact is cumulative."

It's not simply one round of budget cuts, but the accumulation of each successive year, he explained.

"Sometimes it's not realized until after a while, but the impact is immediate," Harden said.

Although Meredith avoided increasing tuition last year, he went on to tell the Board of Regents Wednesday that he initiated a study to review the cost of tuition.

"Despite the dual pressures of rising enrollments and budget cuts, Georgia has been and continues to be a low tuition state," Meredith said. "But continuing financial pressures may challenge our ability to keep tuition low if we are to maintain access and quality in the future. Tuition has been the key to keeping us from having a quality meltdown. As you know, I appointed a Tuition Task Force to study our tuition status and to explore innovative approaches to tuition for the future."

Clayton State students joined students from other system colleges and universities last year in rallying on the steps of the state capitol when talks of raising tuition came up. Students streamed into the Student Government office at Clayton State to sign a petition to voice opposition to any such plan that would increase the cost of a college education.

Meredith noted that the state ranks 15th out of 16 Southern Regional Education Board states in having low tuition. But, while tuition has remained the same, enrollment has increased and state funding has decreased, he said.

"We continue to provide access, as witnessed by a record fall enrollment of 250,659 students," Meredith said. "This number follows three record years of enrollment growth."

Clayton State has shared in this growth, having built a streak of seven consecutive semesters of record enrollment until ending the streak this semester.

"Since 2001 we have lost $378.2 million in cuts," Meredith said. "Today our budget is less that it was in (fiscal year) 2001. Nevertheless, we have successfully met the challenge of serving more than 44,000 new students."

The budget for fiscal year 2006 could end the string of state budget cuts, but that will depend on how things work out between the governor and the Georgia General Assembly during the budget process, Meredith said.