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News Education State budget cuts may force unwelcomed merger of community colleges

Groves Building, SCC Macon County CampusThe newest government target for budget cuts may soon be affecting local community colleges. Many Western North Carolina colleges are being considered for a possible merge including Southwestern Community College (SCC).

The N.C. General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division (PED) has released a report evaluating the cost of the N.C. Community College system. According to the report, if 22 community colleges with less than 3,000 full time students merged with a larger community college within a 30-mile radius, $5.1 million could be saved annually in administrative costs and around $3.5 million saved in other costs. Smaller community colleges have a higher administrative cost per student than larger schools so by merging nearby community colleges, the administrative cost would be reduced without having to close any campuses.

With SCC having a full time enrollment of around 2,600 and Haywood Community College (HCC), which is 24.5 miles away, having around 1,900 full time students, both SCC and HCC have been identified as being considered for consolidation.

On July 13, the Jt. Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee approved the recommendation for referral to bill writing, meaning the issue would be further addressed in the 2012 legislative session. The evaluation team studied the most effective and cost efficient way to administer community colleges throughout the state. The report recommended that the General Assembly’s findings be considered and that legislative action be proposed for January 1, 2012 with an anticipated completion date by 2018.

The PED report included a letter from North Carolina Community College president, Dr. Scott Ralls to John W. Turcotte, Director of The North Carolina General Assembly, Program Evaluation Division. In the letter, Ralls explained the importance of the North Carolina community college system, as it houses “one of the best, if not the best, community colleges in the nation.” Ralls added that the focus should remain on the “community” aspect of community colleges; a merger might very well distract from the sense of unity that community colleges bring to their respective counties.

Newly announced SCC president, Dr. Donald Tomas, is finding himself in the middle of the college merge debate. The press conferences announcing the merge to college presidents was held in June, but Tomas didn’t begin until July 1. Although new to the issue, Tomas has already voiced his reasons for opposing a merge.

“It is our position that there are few, if any, positive outcomes in the event of a merger,” he said, “We believe that any benefits are far outweighed by the negative impacts on the colleges involved and on their respective communities.”

Planning for the worst, Tomas predicts numerous potential problems surfacing in the event of a merge. Similar to Ralls’ concerns outlined in his letter to the PED, Tomas is concerned that a merge would cause a loss of a local identity associated with the institution, which could result in a loss of local support.

According to Tomas, SCC is also against a merge because of the possibility of losing educational programs, as well as a decline in the institution’s ability to quickly and effectively respond to localized education needs. During SCC’s 47 years serving the area, it has built up a large continuing education program which caters to the area’s small business and industry training. A merge might eliminate that educational focus. Tomas also said, “the need for students to travel greater distances to access educational offerings, and potential complications with college accreditation” is another issue that SCC is looking into in the event of a merge.

Adamant in his stance for SCC and HCC to remain separate, Tomas said, “Southwestern has served Jackson, Macon and Swain counties since 1964. This is a region larger than the state of Rhode Island, with a population of over 86,000 residents. The college has worked closely with its host communities and resident employers to develop and deliver the educational programs and services to meet the needs of this region. A possible merger would be detrimental, not only to the college, but also to the residents and communities in the three county areas. Merging smaller schools with larger institutions would be most damaging to rural communities.”

HCC President, Dr. Rose Harrell Johnson encourages the community to review the legislation, “I feel that it is most important for colleges and their communities to have adequate time to analyze the ramifications of a merger before the General Assembly takes action,” she said. “I urge citizens to insist on that opportunity.”

Personally, Johnson is against the possibility of HCC and SCC merging, “I am not in favor of the merger as presented in the legislative recommendation because I believe that great things come in small colleges,” she said. “It is important to maintain the viability of higher education in rural communities.

Johnson agrees with Tomas in the fact that like SCC, HCC has also provided educational opportunity for its citizens and has prepared students to enter the workforce for more than 40 years. Johnson asserted, “The value and impact of a community college should not be measured by dollars alone yet that is exactly what the current legislative study does,” she said, “It does not take into consideration the socioeconomic benefits of rural colleges.”

In August 2007, SCC expanded its service area by opening the Macon Campus. Not even five years old, the Macon Campus is still growing and developing, and a merge could bring an immediate halt to that. According to Tomas, SCC remains confident that the success of the new campus would prevent the proposed merger from impacting the new complex.

“SCC has made a major commitment to developing the Macon Campus in order to meet the educational needs of that community,” he said. “The campus has been enthusiastically received by the leaders and residents of Macon County, and we are most appreciative of this support. It would be a shame if the proposed merger were to have a detrimental impact on this facility.”

During the July 12 Macon County commissioners’ meeting, Ronnie Beale confirmed that 22 colleges are being considered for a potential merge and spoke against SCC being on that list. “Southwestern is one of them,” he said, “which would be not only disappointing but also a very tragic thing for our county in my opinion.”

Beale believes that the situation in the mountains is unique. Thirty miles in the mountains is a lot different from the same situation in the Piedmont and coastal areas. Beale also noted that the proposal, which was originally introduced in a previous session of the General Assembly, was very unpopular. Since it has popped up again with very little discussion, it appears to be moving rather quickly towards a vote, he said.

Beale also challenged the actual financial benefit of the merge by noting that 22 colleges at $5.1 million was equivalent to $231,000 a piece, “which in the total budget of a community college is really not a lot of money,” he said.

Beale explained that SCC has become an invaluable part of Macon County education. “Southwestern is in the bulls-eye of this, and we know what Southwestern has meant to Macon County and to the students for an accessible and affordable education. ... We will certainly be following this closely.”

In the event that the legislation has not been passed by its August meeting, Beale proposed that the board adopt a resolution in opposition of the mergers at that time. “Southwestern is something that’s taken decades to build, and it’s an asset to our community,” he said.

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