“Improved accessibility” to higher education is mentioned in the second principle of the Board of Regents’ list of reasons for consolidating schools. Because I am disabled, I define “accessibility” in terms of supplying services and facilities that can be easily accessed by all people. In the board’s consolidation document, the term seems to be used to imply creating additional options for study. Are options more accessible if the services and facilities are not accessible? Won’t access actually decline if students who currently have to access one university must now access two?
For the physically disabled, access means planning routes around stairways, around sidewalks in which one slab is a couple of inches higher or lower than the next and around building entrances without accessible doors. If we liken a college education to a marathon in which participants must maintain a steady stream of energy over four years of study, going to college with a physical disability means running a marathon while participating in an obstacle course.
The first obstacle concerns accessing the campus — I mean campuses: the second being three times the size of the first and 10 miles away. For the three students I know who are confined to wheelchairs, they will need public transportation with wheelchair lifts simply to access both campuses and then they will have to work out their routes and so on. That may be akin to scaling a 30-foot wall and dropping to the ground on the other side while facing other obstacles as they run the marathon.
Students on the autism spectrum get to “play” a different game as they run their marathon. SPSU is a small school that emphasizes STEM programs and that prides itself on friendly faculty. This reputation has attracted 30 students on the autism spectrum to SPSU, according to Katie Fahn, the disabilities coordinator at SPSU. These students often prefer structured, orderly worlds in which they do not have to navigate chaotic social situations. Two campuses means twice the challenges.
These students get to play the game of Jenga every day. They attempt to keep their world structured, but their foundations are shaken by chaos much like the Jenga tower is destabilized by blocks being removed from the base and added to the top. Adding a second, larger campus for these students may be akin to doubling the height of the Jenga tower and to beginning the game with numerous blocks missing from the base.
Finally, SPSU also attracts a number of students with social anxiety disorders, according to Phyllis Wheatley, director of the Career and Counseling Center at SPSU. People who suffer from social anxiety find going to school, giving speeches, working in groups and taking part in social activities quite difficult. More people means more stress. While these students run their marathon they are keeping anxiety at bay so they can leave their homes to attend school. Asking students with social anxiety to attend two campuses may be akin to asking them to be performers at a large rock concert in which they are the center of attention.
Accessibility in education is rarely about creating mega-schools offering every conceivable program of study. Sometimes it’s simply about focusing on an important niche that affords accessibility extremely well for those interested in certain fields of study.
SPSU is a small rigorous school in the STEM fields. It focuses on an important niche for the state with its STEM emphasis. Graduates from the school do well on the job market. Students who want liberal arts campuses with engineering programs already have choices: Georgia Southern and the University of Georgia.
Shouldn’t we avoid further duplication — a second principle of consolidation for the Board of Regents?
Nancy L. Reichert, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at Southern Polytechnic State University.