Like many institutions of higher learning, Georgia Perimeter College is facing significant financial challenges, but interim President Rob Watts wants to assure prospective students and the community at large that, in spite of the difficulties, it’s business as usual at the college.
“We had to make some difficult and painful cuts to get the college back on track financially,” Watts explained, “and unfortunately, this has meant reducing staff. Ninety percent of the cost of running a college is personnel, so there’s no way to significantly cut costs without cutting personnel. We want people to know that all of our academic programs are still being offered and classes are still being taught by fully qualified instructors.”
Watts has been serving as interim president since May, when GPC President Dr. Anthony Tricoli resigned following the discovery of an approximately $16 million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2012.
Watts, who once before served as GPC’s interim president, said the institution, is very close to his heart and coming back is like coming home. He noted that under university system rules interim presidents are not candidates for the permanent position. “I’m here to get the place in the best shape possible for the new president when one is selected,” he said.
To assure that none of GPC’s academic programs suffer, class sizes have increased slightly—“We’re talking about two or three more students per class,” he said. Also, some administrative people are now teaching.
“That includes me,” Watts said. “I haven’t taught in a classroom in 30 years. I’m more nervous about that than about being president.”
Watts said that small classes are one of many reasons students may choose to enroll at GPC rather than one of the many four-year institutions in the University System of Georgia. “We just don’t have any 200-seat lecture halls,” he said. “And we don’t have situations where a graduate student fills in for the professor. We have a well-deserved reputation for academic and instructional excellence, and that hasn’t changed.”
He added that many students are attracted to the lower tuition rates. “Our rates have gone up—they have for all state schools—but ours still are quite affordable compared to rates at most four-year institution,” Watts said.
The interim president added that the school’s flexibility, with many classes in the evenings and online, works well for non-traditional students who may have families to care for and full-time jobs. “The average student age is just under 25 and we have many older students,” said Watts, who added the college had a large number of international students.
Because GPC’s admission requirements are not as stringent as those at the system’s four-year colleges, some students 90 there to bring their academic qualifications up before moving on to a four-year institution. Watts compared GPC to Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. “For some it’s a point of departure, for some a final destination and it’s a tremendous transfer hub,” he said.
GPC focuses on instructional excellence, and it works, he said. “Our students are very well prepared when they leave here whether they are going on to another institution of starting a career.”
Watts said he has seen a tremendous amount of growth and change since he first came to GPC in 1986, when the school was 22 years old and had slightly fewer than 8, 800 students. With a current enrollment of almost 27,000 students, GPC is the largest associate degree-granting college and the third largest institution in the University System of Georgia.
Like two-thirds of the institutions in the University System of Georgia, GPC is anticipating a slight drop in enrollment next year because of new remedial education requirements. “Approximately 2,500 students enrolled this year would not have been eligible under next year’s standards. So we are likely to see enrollment decrease by that much,” Watts said.
He said he looks forward to good things ahead for GPC as it initiates its first four-year, bachelor-degree programs with plans for many more such programs.