LAWRENCEVILLE - During nearly every discussion over whether Gwinnett County should have its own college, one talking point local boosters trotted out was that Georgia's university system had been stuck on 34 institutions since the 1970s.
But that argument understated the historic significance of Friday's opening of Georgia Gwinnett College on the site of the former Gwinnett University Center in Lawrenceville.
The colleges added to the system three decades ago were two-year schools.
"This is the first new four-year college in 100 years in the state,'' said Rob Watts, who oversees state colleges and two-year colleges for the Board of Regents and formerly served as interim director at GUC. "This is a rare event.''
Years of effort by Gwinnett's political, business and community leaders will finally pay off when classes begin on Friday at GGC, which had neither a name nor a president a year ago.
Last September, the board hired retired Brig. Gen. Dan Kaufman to serve as the new school's president.
Formerly a top administrator at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Kaufman then presided over the naming of the college, the hiring of the first staff and faculty and the development of the first academic programs.
"For us, it's been a final sprint,'' Kaufman said of the last few weeks and months. "It's Aug. 18, ready or not, but we'll be ready.''
The opportunity for four years of college and a bachelor's degree has been available on a limited basis in Gwinnett County since 1987, when the University of Georgia and Georgia Perimeter College set up satellite campuses inside leased space at an industrial park on Sugarloaf Parkway.
But the idea for a stand-alone four-year college didn't begin to take off until GUC got its own digs. In 1997, the county commission donated 160 acres on Collins Hill Road for the new campus, giving it plenty of room to expand.
By the fall of 2004, 21⁄2 years after the campus opened, GUC had grown to 8,000 students, enough to give it the ninth-largest enrollment in the university system.
"When a location gets to a certain size, it needs to have its own leadership that's on the ground in that community,'' Watts said.
That meant converting GUC into a stand-alone college, and the board voted in October 2004 to create the system's 35th institution in Gwinnett.
The General Assembly approved the move during last year's legislative session and Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the resolution in May 2005.
Former Regent Glenn White of Buford, who helped steer the plans through the board, said a stand-alone college will mean local control over important decisions affecting higher education in Gwinnett.
"The community can have a bigger role in the school instead of UGA or Georgia Perimeter coming in and saying, 'This is what we're going to offer this year.'''
White said GGC officials will be in a better position to push for the school's funding needs than were administrators from UGA or Georgia Perimeter, who had their own funding priorities to attend to.
Signs of that are already evident. The board voted last week to put a high priority on building a library for GGC, making the $28.3 million project part of the system's capital projects request for fiscal year 2008.
"There's no better advocate for you than yourself,'' White said.
The presence of a four-year college also will enhance Gwinnett County's ability to lure new businesses, said Demming Bass, spokesman for the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.
"The level of education of the work force - particularly with the knowledge-based industries we're trying to attract - is the most important thing they're looking for,'' he said. "Georgia Gwinnett ... is going to pay off.''
But Kaufman said the ultimate beneficiaries will be Gwinnett's students. The vast majority have had to leave the county to get a bachelor's degree, even the thousands of Georgia Perimeter students who have attended GUC during their first two years of college.
"The UGA program (at GUC) was relatively small,'' Kaufman said. "A significant number of kids had to go somewhere else. Now, there's a continuity of opportunity ... a reduction of uncertainly for our students.''
The opportunity for a four-year college education in Gwinnett, however, will be limited at first.
During the upcoming school year, GGC will be offering degree programs only in business, biology and psychology.
A bachelor's program in education will begin in fall 2007, followed by nursing, radiology and technology management the following year, subject to accreditation approvals.
"You can't start with 50 majors,'' said state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who served as point man for the legislative resolution creating the college. "You have to pick three or four.''
But Balfour said the programs GGC has selected are geared to return the maximum benefit to the community.
"They've gone out and surveyed what the area needs and wants,'' he said.
Susan Chambers, director of nursing at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville, is looking to GGC to help plug a nursing shortage in a county where the nearest four-year nursing programs now offered are at Georgia State University in Atlanta and at Kennesaw State University in Cobb County.
"The geographic distribution of nursing programs leaves this part of town uncovered,'' she said. "We're hoping to have a close relationship with the college.''
Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said the education degree program should help with another perennial shortage in the local work force: Teachers.
He said all of Georgia's education programs combined are turning out only about 3,500 new teachers a year in a state that typically hires about 10,000.
"We're getting a significant number of teachers from outside of Georgia,'' he said. "We have to hire them from somewhere.''
The limited number of programs being offered at GGC this fall will be for a limited number of students.
Kaufman said he is capping applications at 250 for the fall semester, and all of the students will be juniors. Freshmen and sophomores will continue to be enrolled with Georgia Perimeter.
"It made no sense to replicate a GPC freshman class with GGC,'' Kaufman said. "We're getting some juniors to get up and running to meet accreditation requirements.''
The new college plans to really pick up steam next year when it brings in its first freshman class. The goal next fall is for an enrollment of 3,000 GGC students, leaving sophomores as the lone GPC class on campus.
"As we go in, GPC draws down,'' Kaufman said. "The kids just change their T-shirts going into the junior year.''
While T-shirts undoubtedly will help build school spirit, one aspect of campus life that will be missing at least for the time being is dorms.
But Kaufman said those, too, will come as GGC's enrollment grows.
"The thought of 10,000 kids driving onto campus every day doesn't thrill me,'' he said. "When you think strategically about a college of 10,000 students, we may have to go with a residential campus in a few years.''
For now, Kaufman seems excited enough shepherding a commuter college into existence. He'll get a chance to show off the new school during opening festivities on Friday morning, when he addresses the students, faculty and other GGC boosters before the first day of classes.
"We've been practicing long enough,'' he said. "It's time to play the game.''