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Perdue calls new college 'model for university system'

LAWRENCEVILLE - Georgia's "Campus of Tomorrow'' opened its doors Friday in Gwinnett County, complete with a ribbon cutting, speeches from dignitaries and - most importantly - 107 students.

Georgia Gwinnett College is the state university system's first new four-year college in 100 years.

But the new school off of Collins Hill Road, with its emphasis on state-of-the-art technology in learning, also is the first four-year public college in the nation to be founded in the 21st century, college President Dan Kaufman told an audience of students, faculty and community leaders.

"This will be a model for our university system,'' said Gov. Sonny Perdue, who traveled by helicopter onto campus to address Friday's opening ceremony. "We'll all be watching very closely.''

Perdue and the General Assembly gave the final approvals last year to starting up a four-year stand-alone college at the site occupied by Gwinnett University Center, which has been serving as a satellite campus for Georgia Perimeter College and the University of Georgia.

The new college is being phased in gradually. The GGC students in Friday's audience were all juniors majoring in business, biology or psychology, while the freshmen, sophomores and seniors on campus are still enrolled in GPC or UGA.

GGC plans to bring in its first freshman class of about 3,000 students next year, and the school is projecting an enrollment of 10,000 within five years.

For now, however, the 107 students are being taught by 15 faculty members.

"It's smaller classrooms, a more intimate setting,'' said Amanda Moon of Monroe, a business major who said she decided to attend GGC instead of Georgia State University because of the relatively short 30-minute commute.

Because the college is so new, Moon and her classmates won't have many of the amenities that typically go with campus life.

For one thing, a $28.3 million library is still in the pipeline, although the Board of Regents voted this month to move it to the top of the university system's priority list.

If Perdue and the Legislature approve the funding during this winter's General Assembly session, construction could begin by late next year or early in 2008, after the bonds to finance the work are sold, said Eddie Beauchamp, GGC's vice president for business and finance. The building should take 18 to 24 months to complete, he said.

A 1,500-space parking deck and an addition to one of the classroom buildings are due to come on line sooner.

GGC students are being assessed a $100 parking fee per semester to underwrite the costs of the deck, a hefty portion of their total bill for fees of $230. It's also mandatory, meaning that students have to pay it whether they park on campus or not.

"It helps us in our financing to make it mandatory,'' Beauchamp said.

Beauchamp said the parking fee may go down as GGC grows and more students are there to spread the costs around. However, he said the school still may need the money after the deck is built to construct more parking.

Accreditation is another ongoing issue. Stas Preczewski, GGC's vice president for academic and student affairs, said the college is caught in a Catch-22.

He said the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools won't accredit schools until they enroll students. However, students can't apply for federal financial aid unless they're attending an accredited college.

"You can't start the process unless you have students enrolled,'' Preczewski said. "It's to stop mom-and-pop operations from opening in a garage.''

Preczewski said the two-step accreditation process isn't likely to be finalized before December 2008 at best under a time line controlled by the association, not GGC.

However, he said the GGC Foundation has offered to pick up the costs of student financial aid during that gap with private contributions.

"We've got enough assets in the foundation to cover it,'' said foundation Chairman Glenn White.

Moon said it's a bit of a risk for students, who must have a degree from an accredited college to attend graduate school. But she said she trusts GGC officials to deliver.

"They wouldn't be doing all of this if they didn't think it was going to happen,'' she said.

Those potential future concerns, however, were for another day. Many of the political and community leaders who spoke during Friday's opening ceremony instead looked back at years of hard work to achieve the goal of a stand-alone college for Gwinnett.

"This is the beginning of something we've been dreaming about for years,'' said state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. "It's great to see it coming to pass.''