Higher Education Crisis

SHAILA R. AERY

August 25, 1992|By SHAILA R. AERY

"We believe the current economic crisis confronting many [colleges and universities] is real and worsening and will, absent a change in business as usual, imperil the most successful higher education system in the world, weakening our national economy, our security and our quality of life."

That sobering statement was made by trustees representing more than 40 colleges and universities, including some of the most prominent institutions in the United States, in a May article published in AGB Reports, the journal of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. The solution, the trustees said, was to revamp administrative structures, concentrate scarce funds on high-priority, high-quality programs and increase accountability and productivity.

While the article was intended to address problems confronting private institutions, public higher education -- in every state, Maryland included -- faces nearly identical problems. Nearly identical solutions are in order.

Higher education in Maryland has weathered the recession better than colleges and universities in many other states in large part because Governor William Donald Schaefer and the General Assembly increased state support for higher education and continue to treat it as a top priority:

* Generous increases in funding between 1988 and 1990 -- more than $280 million -- cushioned Maryland campuses (even in the midst of substantial budget cuts) from the kind of financial shocks that have rocked higher education in states from California to Massachusetts.

* The student financial aid reforms proposed by Governor Schaefer in 1991 will add an estimated $15 million to state funds available for Maryland college students over the next few years.

* A new funding formula proposed by the governor and approved by the legislature will increase state support for community colleges.

Despite those increases, however, "business as usual" will be just as harmful in Maryland. Indeed, nothing less than fundamental change in the management of higher education is required if we are to continue toward the ambitious goals established in 1988 for Maryland's colleges and universities. There is precious little time to rethink higher education and reshape our institutions to the economic realities of the 1990s.

The problem is larger than higher education. Budget experts predict that the demand for services will outstrip the state's ability to pay for them by $2 billion by the year 2000. Increasing Medicaid costs, the growing cost of federal- and court-mandated programs, and the substantial requirements of capital programs and public education are expected to consume most of the expected growth in revenues. And now the state faces yet another budget crisis.

We are unlikely to have enough money to pay for continued growth and improvement of our colleges and universities in the context of a traditional system of higher education. But the evolutionary changes begun in 1988 can be continued if we are willing to embrace revolutionary changes.

Governor Schaefer and the General Assembly restored most of the 1992 budget for higher education this year, providing "breathing space" for institutions to develop comprehensive, long-term approaches to cost containment. Too often in the past campus presidents have been forced to reduce spending by cutting programs and services across the board.

But cost containment -- if it is understood to mean simply economizing -- is not enough to tackle the large problems confronting higher education in Maryland. Three broad strategies must be adopted:

* Colleges and universities must continue to focus their central purposes and identify campus strengths and priorities.

* Target limited funds to meet the most important educational needs of Maryland and its citizens.

* Actively monitor the progress of our colleges and universities and find ways to reward innovation, efficiency and effectiveness in the management of institutions.

These are not small changes. Institutions are loathe to eliminate programs or faculty; proposals for program mergers are seldom welcomed by the campus community and the idea of allocating funds selectively could provoke complaints about fairness. Regarding management, it is not enough to provide flexibility; we must require accountability among administrators as well as faculty.

This is not a time for tinkering and small changes at the margins of higher education. What is required is nothing less than wholesale reform of higher education by the institutions themselves to make them more responsive to state needs and more accountable to the citizens of this state.

Shaila R. Aery is Maryland's Secretary of Higher Education.

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