Rotary members hear from UWG president

University of West Georgia President Brendan Kelly speaks to the Bremen Rotary Club on Thursday about the challenges of providing education during a pandemic and beyond.

University of West Georgia President Brendan Kelly talked with local Rotarians on Thursday about the challenges that higher education faces during the pandemic and into the future.

“When moments come in our lives where everything changes, it is never going back to the way it was,” Kelly said.

So four weeks into the closure of the college last March, as educators worked to transition to 100% online learning, the administrators were discussing strategic planning. Kelly sourced a quote he had read, “Before we rush back to normal, let’s make sure we decide what parts of normal we want to rush back to.”

With that in mind, the university is looking at the future of the job market, of society and examining how to educate students who have been shaped by technology.

“How do we embrace that future?” Kelly said. “How do we make ourselves more relevant?”

You can’t take a student who has been baptized in technology, who has used virtual reality technology at home to play games, and expect them to come to college and learn by lecture, he said. Things have to change, Kelly said.

“The way in which young people are experiencing the world is different than the way we have experienced it,” Kelly said. “They are going to have different expectations about what their education includes.”

The college has to be competitive, relevant and a partner with the community in order to draw students and provide them with the education that they need to realize their hopes and dreams, he said. That is why he wanted to take the opportunity, when the school was already dealing with a huge change, to examine where that change might take them in the future. At the same time, the university has to look at the bottom line, Kelly said in answer to a question from the audience.

“Regional comprehensive universities like the University of West Georgia are very much invented to give access to higher education across the United States,” Kelly said.

The University System of Georgia, the State Legislature and administrators work together to mitigate costs for students.

The University System of Georgia held steady with tuition rates for this school year after allowing a 2.5% tuition hike for Georgia universities for the 2019-2020 school year, according to a news release. Over the last five years, tuition at Georgia universities has increased an average of .9%, well below the rate of inflation, the news release states.

“Out of the 16 states that make up the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), USG has the fourth lowest in-state tuition and fees for undergraduates at four-year institutions,” according to the system.

Additionally, the college has “rich scholarship programs compared to other states in Zell Miller and Hope,” Kelly said.

The university also tries to pass on as few costs as possible to students, he said. For instance, UWG is currently phasing out an e-tuition fee, saving students about $6 million, said Russell Crutchfield, Kelly’s chief of staff at the university.

Crutchfield added that Kelly has been active in lobbying Congress members on the topic of student loans. One reform he would like to see is requiring loaners to create a sliding scale for student borrowers taking into account the cost of a university. Currently students are offered a maximum which many take thinking that is what they’ll need.

Kelly also added that the rising cost of higher education has been a consequence of a national change to fee-based higher education that was enacted in the 1970s. Over the last 50 years, the cost of education has shifted to the students and their families, he said.

As the students have headed back to campus this fall, UWG has been able to keep COVID-19 infections low, Kelly said in answer to another question from a Rotarian.

“We’re proud of that,” Kelly said. “We’re proud of students pushing to continue to follow good habits, good protocols.”

Universities across the state follow some of the same guidelines, but every university has its own student population, its own types of student housing and campus issues. So each university creates some of its own guidelines to best serve the students and staff there, he said. UWG has been one of the leaders in online education and has been able to rely on that more than some other schools in the state, Kelly said.