ATLANTA (AP) — Faced with declining enrollment, Georgia officials are combining a historically black state university with a two-year state college that also has a high minority student body, creating what they expect will be a stronger institution that retains its black majority and avoids the criticism that has met similar proposals in other Southern states.
Some advocates for historically black colleges and universities are even hailing the move.
Albany State University's 3,500 students will join with Darton State College's 5,500 students under the plan approved Tuesday by the state Board of Regents.
Staunch opposition to mergers in Mississippi and Louisiana in recent years may have provided a free lesson to Georgia officials as they considered Albany State, experts said this week.
Albany State University's name, majority-black status and its interim president all will remain in place as the two institutions merge.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president & CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund that raises money for the institutions including Albany State, said HBCU supporters should consider Georgia's approach a gift.
"I want to make sure the HBCU community is not always positioned as negative, that you can never please us," Taylor said "That hurts us. If we go in and focus on the negative, the rest of Georgia is going to say: 'We can't win.'"
Albany State University's enrollment has dropped 25 percent since its peak in 2011.
Darton State's student body this fall was 44.7 percent black, 48.5 percent white and 3.3 percent Hispanic or Latino. Its enrollment also has dropped in recent years, down 14 percent since 2012.
Based on this fall's combined enrollment, 62 percent of students at both schools identified as black. Georgia officials said Albany State is a top choice for Darton State students who go on to four-year college.
Historically black colleges and universities played a key role during Reconstruction and long into the Jim Crow era, offering black Americans a place to earn degrees while preserving the "separate but equal" doctrine that stood until the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The government has tried in the past to strengthen the more than 100 HBCUs across the nation, and the Obama administration made the institutions a central part of its goal to increase college graduates by 2020.
Still, many such schools have struggled to maintain enrollment after desegregation offered other options to minorities, while state and federal funding has shrunk. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund reported that 75 percent of students at historically black colleges and universities receive Pell grants and 13 percent receive PLUS loans.
When Hank Huckaby, a former state lawmaker, became chancellor of Georgia's university system in 2011, he proposed consolidating public institutions throughout the state. The Albany State-Darton State consolidation is the seventh approved since then, but the first to involve one of the three public HBCUs in Georgia.
Response in Georgia has been muted since the proposal's announcement on Friday, but the path forward is delicate. Officials must decide about faculty, leadership and staff training, said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education search at the Southern Education Foundation.
"In any merger, supporters want to ensure this isn't a step toward these institutions disappearing," Jones said.
As in other consolidations, a committee with representatives from both schools will hold town hall-style meetings and help make those decisions.
Huckaby said Tuesday that officials "thought long and hard about this particular decision."
"The consolidated university will continue to serve the HBCU mission and build on this mission, and that of Darton, to serve students, the community and region more effectively," he said.