Primed to be a major player

Published 8:25 pm Friday, March 26, 2010

Even conceding our state’s seemingly clueless attitude toward understanding the importance of education to Georgia’s future prosperity, our politicians and bureaucrats are going to have a hard time screwing up the College of Coastal Georgia.

The institution simply has too much going for it.

In the first place, the college is located only a few miles from Georgia’s Golden Isles.

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Second, it sits on 193 acres, which means it can grow exponentially, while many of its larger educational cousins are virtually land-locked and, third, it has a president sharper than a steak knife.

Valerie Hepburn arrived at CCGA in 2008 when it became a state college as interim president and got the job full time in 2009. Somebody made a wise choice.

Ironically, Coastal Georgia was founded as Brunswick College in 1961, one year earlier than Cobb County Junior College, which morphed into Kennesaw State University and is now the state’s third-largest university. The coastal facility remained moribund for decades. Hepburn’s arrival has given the college and the community a spark that has long been missing.

It is more than coincidence that Kennesaw State was driven to prominence by Betty Siegel, a woman of great energy and ability. It is the highest compliment to say Hepburn reminds me of Siegel. Don’t be surprised if she achieves the same kinds of results.

“We currently have 3,200 students,” she said during my recent visit to the school, “We could reach 10,000 in the next decade.”

The current enrollment is a 40 percent increase over the previous year, which was a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

Coastal Georgia currently offers bachelor degrees in business administration, early childhood education and middle grades education and a degree in nursing as well as a host of associate degrees.

Hepburn states that her goal is to make the College of Coastal Georgia a “destination campus,” meaning that in addition to getting a good education, there is nothing particularly onerous about being close to the white sandy beaches at Jekyll Island and St. Simons. Not to mention all the corn-fried shrimp you can eat.

One long-time booster, Realtor Roy Hodnett, puts it more bluntly, “When a kid is looking for a place to go to school, why would he or she not want to come to the Georgia coast?”

He makes a good point.

Is it working?

“We just awarded scholarships to a group of high-achieving students, including a young man from Dalton,” Hepburn said. “I suspect you will see more of that kind of recognition of us and our mission in the future.”

Local business leaders are solidly behind Coastal Georgia’s efforts to become a significant part of the state’s higher education system and much credit is given to Brunswick attorney Jim Bishop, who represents the area on the Board of Regents. Still, I wonder why it took so long for everyone to recognize the potential of this place?

As with all institutions in Georgia, the state’s budget crisis is being felt severely by Coastal Georgia.

Hepburn says the college could see its state appropriations reduced by nearly 30 percent in the coming fiscal year. When your state budget is only $14 million to start with, that is cutting through the bone.

Despite the hits, Coastal Georgia is proceeding with previously-approved construction of a health and science building, dormitories and a student center. As the old movie says, build it and they will come.

Hepburn predictably lauds state leaders for their efforts to stave off draconian cuts and says they are wise enough to know that “you don’t eat the seed corn,” meaning that extreme cuts to higher education would mean further economic declines and have a long-term negative impact on Georgia’s future growth. I hope somebody in Atlanta is listening.

In spite of budget cuts, a thorny economy and little tradition, the College of Coastal Georgia is getting itself ready to compete with the big boys. They have the vision, the potential and an astute president to do just that. Mark my words. Coastal Georgia is going to be a major player in the state of Georgia.