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Doing more with less
Tech colleges feel pinch of state budget
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Though enrollment in the Technical College System of Georgia swelled nearly 4 percent in the past year, state funding of the 33-college system has diminished by 8 percent since July.


And depending on January and February state revenue figures, another 2 percent state budget cut could be on the horizon for the state’s technical college system.


Rep. Bob Smith, a Watkinsville Republican and subcommittee chairman for the state House’s higher education appropriations committee, said the General Assembly will determine in February whether to ax another 2 percent from the state technical college system’s budget.


Smith said the possible 2 percent cut, which would bring the system’s total state cuts to $35.5 million since July, is a cut legislators will have to consider as more economic numbers come in.


So far, they’re not looking too good. Smith said state revenue for December 2008 was down 8.7 percent compared to December 2007.


“We’re going to have to see what happens in January and February, and guess what happens in July and after,” Smith said of the pending 2 percent cut and formation of next fiscal year’s state budget, which becomes effective July 1.


The cuts come at a crucial time for technical college education.


Mike Light, a spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia, said nearly 146,000 students are enrolled in technical college programs statewide, and system enrollment is expected to increase 5 percent in the 2009-10 school year.


Light said it’s typical for technical college enrollment to swell when the economy takes a downturn.


As job opportunities become slim, many people turn to technical colleges to obtain technical certifications, diplomas or two-year degrees to become more employable, he explained.


Lanier Technical College President Mike Moye said the college had a 5 percent enrollment increase for the winter quarter over last year. Moye said 3,200 students are now enrolled at Lanier Tech’s five campuses in Oakwood, Forsyth and Dawson counties and Commerce and Winder.


He said Lanier Tech already is operating under an assumed 10 percent state budget cut. To meet the $1 million cut in state funding, Moye said the college moved to a four-day work schedule to save on utilities, and has left several positions unfilled.


“We’re operating on a 10 percent budget cut, because we know that’s where we’re headed,” Moye said.


Moye said the most troubling ripple effect of the state budget cuts was the college’s inability to meet student demand this year for core knowledge classes in its introductory medical and computer technology programs.


Moye said he’s especially concerned about the system’s ability to keep turning out needed medical assistants, nurses, radiological technologists and lab technicians if budget cuts stifle the hiring of personnel to accommodate the influx of students.


“We are seeing a very large number of beginning freshmen, which is indicative of tough economic times and the unemployment rate,” Moye said. “We were just afraid to hire the teachers ... Our budget is 80 percent personnel, and if we sign contracts and more cuts come, we’re stuck.”


Even before the economy took a nosedive, some of Georgia’s technical colleges were experiencing soaring enrollment numbers.


In December, Community College Week Magazine named six Technical College System of Georgia colleges in two categories of the top 50 fastest-growing public two-year colleges in the nation based on 2006 and 2007 enrollment.


According to Community College Week Magazine’s analysis, Griffin Technical College was the fourth-fastest growing two-year college in the nation in the 2,500 to 4,999 enrollment category with a growth rate of 22.7 percent.


Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville was the 20th fastest-growing two-year college in the same category with a 12.6 percent growth rate.


While construction begins next week on a new Lanier Tech building, and another building for the college is in the early design stages, Moye said there’s no money left in the college’s budget to hire personnel to staff the new medical, technology and business classrooms.


He said he’s keeping his fingers crossed that the legislature comes through with some supplementary funding in the next two years for staffing the new buildings, as it has committed to equipping them.


Although Moye said that in his seven years as Lanier Tech president, the technical college system’s budget has never been this tight, the system has grown accustomed to operating with a lackluster bottom line.


“We’re a real bargain,” Moye said of Georgia’s technical colleges. “(The state) doesn’t spend much on us. We’ve been hit much harder than the other two education entities in the state.”


Light said to generate more revenue from within the technical college system, the system implemented a 12-hour credit cap that allows the system to charge students as much as $108 more to take 15 hours of class in a semester, bringing 15 hours of tuition to $540.


The cap was implemented in the fall, and is expected to generate about $10 million annually for the system.


Moye said the system is also considering increasing tuition in the middle of the 2009-10 school year. He said the proposed increase would raise tuition from $36 per credit hour to about $41 per credit hour.


Despite the challenge ahead, Moye said he has high hopes for the next school year. He said he is committed to doing all he can to maintain the college’s most important investment — its people.


Unlike other schools in the technical college system, Moye said, Lanier Tech has not been forced to lay off any of its employees due to the economic downturn.


Systemwide, 80 employees who range from administrators to custodians have been laid off, Light said.


“We’ve spent a great deal of time and money to attract and train our people,” Moye said. “The people are the college, not the equipment, not the buildings.”