Since 2011, the University System of Georgia has been consolidating some of its 35 colleges and universities.
The biggest of these mergers -- combining four-year Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta and largely two-year Georgia Perimeter College anchored in the suburbs -- is slated to be final in 2016.
When this merger was approved earlier this month by the university system’s Board of Regents, officials said the university that emerges would retain the Georgia State name. They said it also would become the largest university in Georgia.
But in a mass email to former students, the school’s alumni association suggested the merger will put GSU in an even more exclusive class. With a student enrollment of more than 54,000, the consolidated university also will be one of the largest in the nation, the email said.
PolitiFact Georgia decided to check the facts and the numbers.
We looked first at the claim that a merged Georgia State and Georgia Perimeter College would be No. 1 among the state’s colleges and universities, based on enrollment.
The University of Georgia currently holds that rank, with 35,197 students enrolled last fall, followed closely by GSU with 32,556 students.
But a consolidated school would have 53,927 students, if the 21,371 students who attended Georgia Perimeter last fall were put on GSU’s rolls.
That would put GSU’s enrollment well above UGA’s and No. 1 in the state by more than 20,000 students, based on current data. Enrollment is forecast to exceed 54,000 by 2016, assuming normal growth..
Now, what about that national claim?
We found a couple of organizations that rank colleges and universities by enrollment. But for our purposes we had to discount the most widely known of those, U.S. News & World Report. The magazine, which grades colleges and universities on several standards, bases the ranking we saw on undergraduate enrollment. Georgia State’s claim is based on total enrollment.
The website Matchcollege.com identified the largest 300 colleges and universities in the U.S, -- and only 17 of them had 50,000-plus students. Several of the highest-ranking schools were largely on-line, although Ohio State University and the University of Central Florida were high on the list with 56,387 students and 59,601 students, respectively.
We discounted the schools that are largely online, including Phoenix University, with its 300,000-plus students. We did not see how to make apples-to-apples comparisons between the largely online and traditional brick and mortar colleges and universities, and a data expert we consulted agreed.
Bragging rights are also hard to determine since a lot depends on how the numbers are counted, and who is counted? We found where Central Florida calls itself the second-largest university in the U.S.
In Indiana, we found that Ivy Tech College, which is the state's system of community colleges at multiple locations, is considered one college. It calls itself the nation’s largest single accredited statewide community college.
We looked at federal government data and went to websites to get more recent enrollment numbers. From that we found: Arizona State University with a first-day 2014 fall enrollment topping 82,000; Lone Star College hitting an all-time high enrollment last fall of 82,818; University of Minnesota reported system-wide enrollment this fall of 67,477; The University of Texas at Austin in fall 2013 had 52,076 students enrolled; and Tarrant County College (another community college in Texas) with a fall 2014 enrollment of 50,628.
Richard Vedder, director of the not-for-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington D.C., said he was confident that Georgia State will qualify as one of the nation’s largest universities, once the merger is complete.
He said it was "a little unusual to have a two-year merge into a four-year" university.
"Schools like Georgia State take on thousands of marginally qualified students who don’t go on to graduate and tend to hurt their rankings. Now, they’re going to add Georgia Perimeter students," he said.
"It might be good to save an institution. It might be a way to improve access. But I can’t see any reputation gains from it," he said.
Vedder also cautioned that "getting big doesn’t necessarily mean getting better."
Hank Huckaby, chancellor of the University System, has never said the goal was to boost Georgia State’s size.
He has said the merger will play to GSU’s strength as "a recognized national leader in improving student retention and graduation rates."
"Combining these attributes with Georgia Perimeter College’s leadership in providing access to students across the metro area presents a major opportunity to improve student success," Huckaby said after the merger was approved.
GSU officials also have stressed that the university’s rankings as a top-tier public research university will not be impuned and that Georgia Perimeter’s academic enterprise will be evaluated and measured separately from Georgia State’s bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs by organizations that rank institutions.
Students and faculty at GSU and Georgia Perimeter have been voicing concern about how the schools’ two missions will be blended and about staff layoffs forecast for Georgia Perimeter
A student earning a 4-year degree from Georgia State can expect to earn $44,200 starting out and $72,900 at mid-career, according to payscale.com. By comparison, a student with two-year degree from Georgia Perimeter can expect to make $37,200 starting out and $48,200 at mid-career.
Georgia Perimeter has been without a permanent president since 2012 when President Anthony Tricoli resigned after an audit revealed a budget shortfall at the college of about $25 million. Tricoli has since filed suit, alleging he was made the fall guy and misled about the finances.
Revelations about the shortfall initially hurt the college’s credit rating. But it has since bounced back and recently been upgraded.
Our conclusion: The merger of Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College will make the state’s largest university, as plans exist now. It also would make the combined university one of the largest in the nation.
We rate the alumni association’s statement True.