With two days left in Georgia's 2010 legislative session, University System Chancellor Erroll Davis is cautious but optimistic the feared worst-case scenario of massive budget cuts to the state's public universities and colleges has been avoided. Davis, however, said a tuition increase was “probable” for all 35 schools in the system.
During a visit to Georgia Southern Monday, Davis spoke about the budget and gave new GSU president Brooks Keel a positive review after Keel's first four months on the job.
“It's a little early to make any judgments about Dr. Keel yet, but I've heard nothing but positive comments about him,” Davis said. “He has come here during tough times and done an admirable job. Give him a year and I can give you a better answer.”
Davis said the budget situation at Georgia Southern and for all state public colleges and universities was looking far more positive than it did in early March. After Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed cutting $265 million from the University System budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, state legislators said that wasn't enough. They told system officials to look at cutting $565 million, which would have translated to a 30 percent reduction in state funding at Georgia Southern.
The current cuts in the budget more closely follow Gov. Perdue's original proposal, Davis said.
“Given what (proposal) we are seeing now, it certainly is not without pain or suffering, but (the cuts) would not be of the scale that was originally discussed,” Davis said.
Until Georgia Southern receives its final budget from the state, however, Keel said the university was still working on a worst-case scenario budget.
“Never let a good budget crisis go to waste,” Keel said. “It forces us to look at our priorities, find inefficiencies and make tough decisions.”
Whatever budget finally emerges, the university system faces challenges and opportunities, Davis said.
“The real story here is explosive growth,” Davis said. “We have 40,000 more students over where we were three years ago. We'll have 100,000 more by 2020. If you look at this from a support per student basis, (funding) has declined from a little above $8,000 two years ago to a little above $6,000 for FY 11. That's a huge challenge.
“But it also represents an opportunity because an educated populace is a more productive populace. It pays higher taxes. It provides better leadership. So more students is a greater opportunity, too.”
On average, tuition for Georgia public colleges and universities has been near the low end of average tuition in the nation. But Davis said that is changing and not just because of rising tuition fees.
“In the past two years, we have made structural changes asking students pay for 15 hours rather than 12,” Davis said. “But given the explosive growth and decline in per student support, I would have to say that, unfortunately, (a tuition increase) is probable this year. Having said that, I want everyone to understand we are looking at all areas to increase funding for the system, not just a tuition increase.”
Despite the continuing budget cloud, Keel was adamant about where Georgia Southern is headed.
“The university is going up,” Keel said. “We are staying focused on the future and I believe those that have the plans ready to put into place when the economy does pick up, will be way ahead of the curve.”
James Healy can be reached at (912) 489-9402.