published Friday, August 31st, 2012

UGA: Rising expectations

Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia, is approaching a self-described bittersweet moment in his life. The long-time leader of the state's flagship institution of higher learning will retire in June. It is a career that he views with understandable pride, though he is quick to point out that it has not been free of controversy. Indeed, he's currently facing a familiar and contentious issue. He has a numbers problem.

That number is 12,000. That's how many Georgia residents who applied for admission to the Athens campus were rejected. The concerns and pressures that creates for the university's president, Adams says with just a hint of a smile, are considerable. Still, he's not entirely unhappy with the situation. There are some positive aspects to the admissions statistics that please Adams, and rightfully so.

Spurred by the university's growing reputation for academic excellence and buttressed by the promise of HOPE scholarships, more and more of Georgia's high school seniors apply to the university in Athens. The result is that many of the state's most accomplished students now seek a relatively limited number of places in the freshman class. Consequently, the cutoff point for admission to the flagship school continues to rise.

From an institutional standpoint, that's welcome. From a political and personal standpoint, Adams admits, it often leads to difficulties.

UGA's current freshman class — about 5,100 students — has a 3.8 high school grade-point average and an average SAT test score approaching 1400. Those scores and the academic performance of past classes make the school one of the country's top state universities. For the first time, UGA now ranks among the nation's top 12 public "Ivys," a designation that includes power-house universities in Virginia, North Carolina, California, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Such recognition is welcome, of course, but it comes with considerable baggage engendered by high standards. Alums, many of them regular and substantial donors, and parents don't or won't understand why their child has been refused admission. Legislators become involved when constituents want them to intercede with the university on their child's behalf. The situation can get testy, with some people urging elected officials to reduce UGA funding if admission standards are not changed. Legislators have resisted such pressures, though the university's budget has been trimmed for other reasons in recent years.

Many elected officials and state residents, Adams says, understand the need for tough standards. The state is better served by a university with rigorous admissions requirements and high demands for achievement. Despite it all, UGA still serves many state residents. Georgians make up 84 percent of the UGA student body, a figure that has remained steady for several years. There's an additional benefit to rising standards at the state's main university campus.

A more selective UGA is helping to create a better environment for higher education elsewhere in the state. Georgia Southern and Georgia College, for instance, report freshman classes with higher grade point averages and test scores as applicants rejected in Athens enroll at their campuses.

Adams is far too modest to claim sole responsibility for the measurable progress in so many spheres — academics, endowment, infrastructure, fiscal management, improved faculty, better and brighter students, support of liberal arts curricula and stronger town-gown, legislative and political relationships — at the University of Georgia. His vision and policies, however, have contributed directly to such progress. His soon-to-end tenure has not been pain-free, but the problems that have arisen — even vexing ones concerning admissions — are a reasonable price for Georgians to pay for a still improving and increasingly competitive and winning statewide system of higher education.

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