Graduation day is Dec. 14. She was excited that her family was coming from out of town to celebrate her walk across the stage.
Now she has learned that the commencement ceremony she worked for and paid for is not going to happen.
Grappling with a $25 million shortfall that began to come to light this spring, Georgia Perimeter College has canceled its December commencement ceremony.
The event was to be held in the gymnasium of the college’s Clarkston campus.
The cancellation affects an anticipated 1,000 to 1,100 candidates for graduation from the two-year community college. About one-third of GPC graduates typically participate in their commencement ceremonies.
In a Sept. 21 e-mail to students, GPC interim President Rob Watts said attendance at graduation has been rising at both the fall and spring commencement programs over the past few years and that shifting from two ceremonies to just one in the spring at a larger venue will allow students to invite more guests.
Watts said that having one ceremony will save the college about $14,000.
College spokeswoman Beverly James said Watts would not discuss the cancellation with CrossRoadsNews.
“Mr. Watts’ statement to the students is the only comment that he will make for the story,” James wrote in an Oct. 23 e-mail.
David Schick, 26-year-old editor of GPC’s student newspaper, The Collegian, said many students are angry.
“I wasn’t planning on walking [at graduation], so it wasn’t that big a deal to me, but I know a lot of people were upset about it,” Schick said.
Brittney Fitzpatrick, 21, of Walton County said she feels “a little shot down” by her college.
“I feel like after working so hard everybody deserves to get your starring moment, to be recognized for all the hard work you’ve done,” said Fitzpatrick, who will transfer to the University of Georgia after she graduates in December.
“I realize it’s only a two-year degree, but I did a lot to get that two-year degree and everybody worked really hard. After I transfer to UGA, what’s the point in making the drive to walk across the stage for something I’m already going to have in my hand?”
Haven for nontraditional students
Coletta Carter, GPC’s assistant vice president for student development and special programs, said December graduates could get their paper diplomas in February.
The students were invited to participate in a commencement program in May at the Atlanta Civic Center, where they can receive covers for their diplomas, said Carter, who co-chairs the Commencement Committee.
The May graduation is expected to cost about $19,000, including $8,000 to rent the Civic Center.
Last spring, students paid a nonrefundable $25 graduation fee that helps fund the commencement ceremony. It covers the cost of printing diplomas and graduation programs and processing diploma documents.
Georgia Perimeter College, nearly 50 years old, is a haven for nontraditional students. Their ages span a wide spectrum. Many of them have full-time jobs and take courses as they can fit them into their finances and schedules. Some are the first in their families to earn degrees.
Martha Wallace, who is scheduled to graduate in December, is happy the ceremony will be in a larger location and with spring weather.
Wallace, a grandmother of eight, has many relatives in the North who would like to attend her graduation and would be more willing to travel in the spring.
“We can have a better celebration,” said the Stone Mountain resident, who’s coming up on her 60th birthday.
Other December graduates are not swayed by the lure of a larger venue.
Ashjuana Airall, 19, of Stone Mountain said she hopes to be studying at Paine College in Augusta next spring. She depends on her parents for transportation and said she won’t be able to return to Atlanta for a spring ceremony.
Correia, a 29-year-old from Sandy Springs, expects to be much farther away.
She plans to move 2,180 miles from Atlanta in January to pursue her bachelor’s degree at California State University Dominguez Hills.
“For lack of better words,” she wrote in an Oct. 10 opinion piece for The Collegian, “this is bulls--t.”
Correia said Tuesday that she had family coming from Rhode Island.
“Thank God they didn’t buy their tickets when they wanted to, back in July.”
She estimates that it would cost her more than $900 for airfare, hotel and car rental to return to Atlanta in May for graduation.
“I’m frustrated that my life is being put on hold and feel helpless that my screams for a better outcome are going unheard,” she wrote in The Collegian.
Growing student population
As graduations go, Georgia Perimeter’s have traditionally been low-frills affairs, held since about 2008 in the Clarkston campus’s gymnasium.
Each year, GPC spends about $40,000 for two graduations. The May 2012 graduation cost $16,304.97, documents obtained by The Collegian show.
About 80 percent of that expense was for printing programs; renting a stage, canopy and lighting equipment; and hiring the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra to perform.
When Carter came on board in 2000, the college was staging just one commencement ceremony per year, in the spring. She said it was held at a church and was later moved to Hallford Stadium behind the Clarkston campus. After complaints about heat, the ceremony was moved to the gym, which holds up to 1,500 people.
Carter said that two years ago, GPC’s commencements began trending toward outgrowing their space.
To accommodate the crowd, the college split graduation into fall and spring ceremonies and holds two ceremonies on each of those days.
GPC had grown to be the state University System’s third-largest institution, with enrollment growing from 13,400 in fall 2007 to more than 27,000 in fall 2011.
It currently has 23,871 students on four campuses and at its Alpharetta Center. About 40 percent of those students are Distance Learning students who take classes online.
Last spring, a resolution commending then GPC President Anthony Tricoli for his work at the college was read and adopted in the Georgia House of Representatives on March 27.
About a week later, the college’s Commencement Committee sent an April 6 e-mail to Dr. Vincent June, vice president for student affairs, that recommended a return to one graduation to be held at the Civic Center.
“We put forth a recommendation that they consider moving it to a large venue that could accommodate all of our graduates and their guests,” Carter said. “Also, the cost was continually rising because we have to provide all of the staging pieces.”
Dean Alford, who represents the 4th Congressional District on the state Board of Regents, said he “hates it tremendously” that graduation was canceled.
“But right now, every penny does matter,” Alford said. “It’s a tragic, bad situation that the school finds itself in. It’s sad that the students have to pay the consequences of adults not doing their jobs.”
In April, a $16 million budget shortfall was discovered at GPC.
On May 7, Chancellor Hank Huckaby announced that Tricoli, who had been at GPC since October 2006, had “stepped down.”
Tricoli alleged that key financial personnel at GPC had defrauded the school. But a review recently completed by the University System concluded that chronic overspending and the depletion of reserves to make ends meet were the culprit.
Auditors concluded that lack of proper oversight from Tricoli and other top fiscal leadership led to GPC’s shortfall.
“Unfortunately, key leaders at every level charged with actual responsibility for GPC’s fiscal management did not exercise all of their assigned duties,” the review said. “It appears that an emphasis on enrollment growth and program expansion took precedence over sound fiscal practice as management and leadership priorities.”
Watts, the University System’s former chief operating officer, was appointed interim president on May 9. He also served as interim president before Tricoli was hired.
The college’s current operating budget is $183 million, which reflects a budget cut of more than $20 million.
To absorb that cut, GPC has laid off 282 employees. Travel and operating supply costs have been cut. Class sizes were increased by two students, and faculty is required to teach 10 classes rather than nine. Computer upgrades were eliminated for one year, and all facility upgrades were ended.
GPC expects to end this fiscal year on June 30, 2013, with a deficit of $5 million to $9 million.
Watts joined academic deans and other administrators drafted into classrooms to help the college weather its financial crisis.
And on Sept. 21, about five weeks into the fall semester, Watts turned his attention to notifying students about the postponement of their graduation ceremony.
Watts was quoted in an Oct. 9 Collegian article as saying that he was notified of the recommendation in mid- to late summer by June, the vice president for student affairs.
Watts told the Collegian that he took responsibility for the delay in telling students about the cancellation. He said that he was distracted by other events on campus.
Some legislators who signed the resolution honoring Tricoli expressed dismay over the graduation cancellation this week.
State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-District 86) said she believes Tricoli was made a scapegoat by the University System. “I don’t even believe Tricoli was at fault,” she said.
Drenner, who was commencement speaker at GPC a couple of years ago, said she would be upset if she were one of the December graduates.
“They’re worried more about covering up the fact that there were some internal problems going on at the campus and at the regent level when what they’re really there to do is take care of their students,” Drenner said Wednesday.
“Students have paid fees, so they should be entitled to graduate when they were told they were going to graduate.”
State Rep. Michele Henson (D-District 87) said she “empathizes with the students.”
“Hopefully, we can come to some resolution where they will be able to have a graduation in December,” she said.
State Rep. Rahn Mayo (D-District 91) said he thinks it would have been better for the college to look at cutting upcoming expenses than to cancel graduation.
“I think it would be prudent to look at ways to cut costs in the future than to pull the plug on students who were expecting a ceremony and making plans for an important moment in their lives,” he said.