University of North Georgia is bracing for tough times ahead after state lawmakers on Wednesday passed a budget that cuts $66 million, or just over 2%, in funding for the University System of Georgia.
As a result, UNG would lose about $2.54 million in state funding for the upcoming fiscal year. When combined with a 10% cut in total state spending in 2020 and a $13 million cut caused by a drop in student enrollment, UNG expects its budget to shrink by about $24 million by 2025.
It is unclear at this point exactly how that loss in funding might impact UNG, but President Bonita Jacobs called it “concerning” in a letter to faculty and staff on Friday and seemed to hint at potential layoffs in the future.
“This new and unexpected budget cut is concerning,” she wrote. “The severity of the budget cut passed by the legislature this week will further impact teaching budgets, staffing and student services as the university seeks to reduce costs.”
Will there be layoffs?
“We're not planning any layoffs specifically, and the budget is not final at this point,” UNG spokeswoman Kate Maine said in an interview. “But I think President Jacobs is trying to be as transparent as possible with our university community. This is a significant funding decrease if it goes through, and it will impact our operations.”
UNG avoided significant layoffs last year by leaving vacancies unfilled, cutting the travel budget and reducing spending in other areas. Last August, three non-tenured faculty were notified that their contracts would not be renewed, and some fear there might be more job reduction on the horizon following this latest cut.
“It's just a lot of uncertainty at UNG at the moment,” said Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of English at UNG and president of the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors. “We do know we've had similar cuts in the past, and retirements and unfilled positions have saved people's jobs. But on this new one, we just don't know how it's going to go.”
“If they laid off three non-tenure-track faculty last year,” Boedy said, “I would expect that number to go up now.”
Decline in enrollment
UNG’s enrollment fell by 8.6% from fall 2019 to fall 2022, from 19,748 to 18,046 students.
Jacobs wrote that the decline in enrollment is attributable to a “strong local labor market, the effects of the pandemic on student enrollment, and national decreases in the number of traditional college-age students.”
“At UNG, those trends have been particularly evident in losses of students seeking associate degrees,” Jacobs wrote in her letter. All the while, she added, UNG is paying more for employee health insurance, and its utility costs have increased by more than $1 million.
Will tuition go up?
It is not clear whether or how much tuition costs will rise. Those decisions are not made by universities. They are made by USG’s Board of Regents.
In one of their last acts of the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill requiring legislative approval of tuition increases of more than 3% at state universities.
In an interview with The Times, USG Chancellor Sonny Perdue said he was puzzled by the decision to slash the university system’s funding on the one hand and limit tuition hikes on the other.
“I don't believe the Board of Regents would really contemplate anything greater than that anyway,” Perdue said of the 3% tuition cap. But, he added, “I'm not sure what the motive would have been to decrease the funding on one side and then cap any opportunity for tuition increases on the other side.”
Lawmakers react to USG budget cut
The Georgia House and Senate on Wednesday approved the $32.5 billion state budget, which will take effect July 1. The Senate voted 54-1 in favor, and the House then approved it 170-3 in the closing hours of this year’s legislative session. It will now go to Gov. Brian Kemp for final approval.
“There was a lot of good things in that budget, but I felt like that was not one of them,” said Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville and member of the House appropriations committee. “We've got a decreasing enrollment, so that affects our budget also. And I definitely would not like to see tuition increased due to this cut.”
“I didn't lobby for it and wouldn’t have lobbied for it,” said Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville. “I think if (the USG Board of Regents) really do what I did in my businesses, when we had a tough one year, I just tightened my belt up and I did without a few things and then I made it 'til the next year.”
Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on education, blamed the Senate for the USG budget cut.
“I’ll put it to you this way. When the budget left the House, there were no cuts to the USG budget. When it left the Senate, USG was cut by $105 million,” Dubnik said. The House objected, he said, and restored $39 million to USG’s budget. “That left a $66 (million) gap. So I would suggest anyone who has an issue with that should pick up the phone and call the Senate appropriations chairman.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, and other lawmakers have pushed back against critics, saying USG’s 26 public universities can make up for the budget shortfall by using the roughly $500 million in cash they have on hand, called carry-forward funds.
UNG, for example, had $7.6 million in carry-forward funds at the end of 2022.
“I'm not saying that that's gonna make everything better for UNG, but I also will say that clearly their carry-forward costs triple the cuts USG has told them they will take,” Tillery said.
Sens. Shelly Echols, R-Gainesville, and Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, declined to say whether they supported or opposed the $66 million USG budget cut and instead issued a joint statement through the press office.
On a positive note, some say, this year’s $32.5 billion state budget will pay full tuition for all college students receiving a HOPE Scholarship and also give all state and university employees and public school teachers a $2,000 pay bump.
But the juxtaposition in priorities has left some scratching their heads.
“I'm confused that the state legislators think so highly of us to give us $2,000 raises and then think so poorly of us that the cut is so deep like this,” said Boedy, the UNG professor.
This article was originally published in the Gainesville Times, a sister publication of DCN.