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You didn't get into Georgia Tech? Blame Legislature for underfunding higher ed and voters for allowing it


In the last two weeks, I've received emails from parents of accomplished students --- high ACT/SAT scores, eight AP classes, 4.0 GPAs -- who did not get into Georgia Tech, especially in the areas of computer science and engineering. This includes households where both parents graduated Tech, and, in some cases, a grandparent also attended.

A common complaint: Why does Tech turn down such outstanding Georgia kids in favor of students from other states or countries? Shouldn't Tech give preference to in-state students since taxpayers fund the university?

Here is a rejoinder to that complaint from T.J. Murphy, who says Georgians have allowed the General Assembly to essentially starve the state's public colleges, forcing these campuses to generate their own revenue, some of which they derive from the higher tuition of out-of-state students.

Murphy is the founder of the Atlanta-based Gradschoolmatch, which connects future graduate students with the people who run the graduate programs they should attend. He writes about trends in higher education at blog.gradschoolmatch.com. He also serves on the faculty of the Emory University School of Medicine.

By T.J. Murphy

The springtime admissions decisions are out and only 60 percent of entering students at the Georgia Institute of Technology will be Georgia residents. Many high achieving students in Georgia hoping to attend this truly premier educational institution are deeply disappointed, along with their parents.

What is going on here?

In my opinion, there are two principal drivers of this trend. The first is Georgia Tech’s pre-eminence as an engineering-focused research institution. Quite simply, it is among the top two or three such universities in the world.

The stellar reputation Georgia Tech enjoys allows the institution to define itself and its mission in less constrained ways. The admissions process, which is to bring together a highly accomplished and eclectic mix of new students, as described on this blog recently by Georgia Tech’s admissions director, is one of several important ways a university defines its trajectory.

The second driver is the continuing and relentless trend by political leaders across the country to divest their states from their public institutions of higher education. This trend is rooted largely in conservative political ideology and forces these institutions to increasingly fend for themselves.

Another consequence of this divestment trend is that students are required to shoulder a higher burden of the educational cost.

In 2000, appropriations from the state of Georgia totaled $2.85 for every dollar Georgia Tech collected in net tuition. In 2014, that number was down to $0.77 appropriation dollar for every dollar of tuition. This is not specific to Georgia Tech. The ratio at Georgia State went from $1.99 to $0.83 over that same period, whereas at University of Georgi went from $3.34 to $1.06.

I look at this number as a privatization ratio. As state appropriations get smaller relative to tuition collected, the state shoulders less of the cost of education. Thus, the public institution looks more and more like a private university.

At Georgia Tech, that ratio in 2014 is about one-fourth what it was 15 years before, whereas at Georgia State it is one-half. Thus, you could say that Georgia Tech is privatizing at a rate twice that of Georgia State. UGA is privatizing at a rate somewhat between the two other University System flagships.

As the institutions slowly privatize, they must become more resourceful. One important way is to diversify their various revenue streams. Thus, at Georgia Tech, 40 percent of the entering undergraduate class are non-resident students who pay tuition at roughly twice the rate of Georgia residents.

People are sometimes surprised to learn how multifaceted are these big institutions. At Georgia Tech, for example, tuition accounts for only 16 percent of its overall revenue. The cost of education accounts for only 25 percent of its spending. A lot of other things go on at Georgia Tech.

In 2014 state appropriations accounted for even less. Just 12 percent of revenue. In other words, 88 percent of Tech’s revenue comes from sources other than the state coffers. It is hard not to imagine that sometime in the future that state appropriations to Georgia Tech will be so low they will be on the scale of a rounding error.

Georgia Tech is moving forward, boldly and successfully, despite the ever lower contributions from the state. As it does so, it is less beholden to the state and its residents. They have a deep pool of strong non-resident applicants.

Their admissions practices, which close out state residents, are designed to help ensure the institution’s reputation continues to strengthen. They will be in a solid position when the day comes that state appropriations are truly minuscule.

The simple fact of the matter is that the voters in Georgia made this bed a long time ago. Georgia residents who have supported the existing political establishment can't expect to have their cake and eat it, too. The seats they want for their children might have been there if they voted for a Legislature that provides these institutions the resources necessary to educate Georgia residents.

Georgia Tech and the other flagships have been slowly but surely cast adrift by Georgia politicians. These are very strong institutions run by incredibly talented people with clear visions of what a university can be. I don't have any doubt that the Georgia public universities will grow stronger and make their marks in the world. There are many revenue streams out there that can replace those from the state.

But as Georgia residents reduce their investment in higher education, they force the same universities to diversify not only what they offer but to whom it will be offered. Georgia residents who want seats saved for their children should first demand that the divestment stops.

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.