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Walter Jones Columnist

Published Saturday, April 28, 2012

Huckaby seeks affordability

News that the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents voted unanimously to boost tuition by as much as 6 percent for some students after getting a 5 percent boost in appropriations led to criticism across the state.

But as Chancellor Hank Huckaby notes, it’s not as though the board hasn’t been working to control costs.

After all, he warned the presidents of the state’s 35 public colleges and universities that he was going to be slow to recommend the board increase fees.

Yet 17 schools still submitted requests to hike 30 different fees. Only two, including Augusta State University, asked to lower any.

Huckaby rejected many of the requests simply because the schools had ample cash on hand to function another year without the increase.

He has a task force focused on preserving affordability.

Another initiative seeks to rein in the system’s $3 billion building boom, and a different task force discovered that some schools only utilize 30 percent of their classroom space.

The board has begun testing installment payments to at least spread out the sting of tuition, housing and meal-plan costs that all fall at the same time textbooks and lab fees are due.

Administrators at Georgia Tech have taken a lead in some of these initiatives, at the request of their students.

For example, Tech is exploring textbook rentals and e-books as alternatives to outright purchases of tomes which routinely total $200 each.

Gov. Nathan Deal is getting in the act. He has directed that the University System improve its graduation rate, which is lower than the Atlanta Braves’ win-loss ratio.

The financial aspect of that is future appropriations will be related to the college completion rate.

In the round of budget discussions leading up to approval of each school’s allocations, Huckaby insisted appropriation increases go to schools with the best plans for boosting graduation rates.

Soon, funding and pay for college presidents will be used as rewards for success.

Other Deal initiatives create ways to make paying the costs doable. While he scaled back the HOPE Scholarship except for the highest-achieving students, he established a low-interest loan program.

He also created the REACH Scholarship for low-income families.

Deal got some corporations to kick in to the REACH fund, and the foundations of several universities like Tech and the University of Georgia also contributed.

Tech already has a program for needy students with family incomes below $35,000 that has awarded 200 students so far.

Additionally, Deal and Huckaby launched a consolidation program that will merge eight schools into four in its initial round.

No second round has been announced, and the chancellor refuses to estimate how much will be saved other than explaining that logic suggests halving the number of administrators should result in some savings.

Huckaby may have begun his career in the ivy-covered halls of academia, but he wound it up – before Deal called him out of retirement to be chancellor – as a budget hawk for governors and college administrators.

As head of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, he heard every excuse for why a given budget cut would be devastating to this program or that, and he has heard countless pleas for just a little more money “to complete the job.”

University System insiders say they have learned he means business.

Huckaby replaced as chancellor Erroll Davis, who came to the job after a successful business career. Davis was supposed to bring those same skills to the gigantic government-within-a-government that is the University System.

Legislators believe the University System changed Davis more than he changed it.

Knowledgeable observers, including legislators, see Huckaby changing the University System. Of course, it’s like turning a battleship, and they know it will take a while.

One area where Huckaby does embrace the thinking of the university presidents is that Georgia’s tuition is a bargain and maintaining or increasing quality takes money.

Legislators and parents who have dealt with radical budget cutbacks at their private employers don’t seem to agree.

(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)

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