Our Say: State's public colleges facing big challenges

The Editorial Staff

Copied with permission of The Capital

IF THE long-term problems facing state higher education could be solved with a little belt-tightening, University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan would have every reason for optimism right now. The regents have just approved a plan for administrative and academic changes designed to save more than $26 million. These changes include increasing professors' workloads by 10 percent and capping the credit hours needed to graduate in most majors at 120 - to move students through the system more quickly. This effort earned an approving nod from Gov. Robert Ehrlich in his State of the State speech, in which he announced a $67 million increase in state funding for higher education.

But Mr. Kirwan, meeting with our editorial board last week, forecast a storm on the horizon. He warns that the coming years will bring huge challenges for the university system.

For one thing, the demand for higher education will be going up dramatically. A college diploma has already become the equivalent of a high school diploma of decades ago - the minimum requirement for most well-paid professional positions. The number of would-be students will climb as more of the "baby boom echo" generation reaches college age. Mr. Kirwan says his system is facing an influx of up to 30,000 additional students by 2010.

Many of these students will be from low-income backgrounds and will find themselves facing a difficult climate in their college years. For even as the federal government reduces its commitment to college aid and research funding, the state is carrying less of the financial load of higher education. So, of course, tuitions are soaring.

Meanwhile, the crowded schools have gotten more selective academically. Parents who went to a University of Maryland campus are often stunned to realize that their children, even with better grades than they had, are unlikely to get in.

As the state's public colleges become de facto private colleges that happen to get a state subsidy, a vicious circle takes shape. If taxpayers can't get their kids into a University of Maryland campus _ or find that getting them there means exorbitant tuitions - why should they insist that their legislators appropriate more money for these schools? After all, what are they getting out of them? And as state support declines, tuitions go yet higher and enrollments lag further behind demand.

Mr. Kirwan is right when he points to American higher education as one of the keys to this country's success, just as the public university system he heads is vital to this state's economy. That's why its long-term health is crucial.

The university system, under Mr. Kirwan, has shown that it is willing to look for ways to economize. It's willing to look to the future by stressing programs like online education. But it can't handle the coming enrollment surge just by belt-tightening. It will need attention and support from state officials.

Published 02/27/05, Copyright 2005 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.