Why State Aid for Non-state Colleges

SHEILA R. AVERY

April 13, 1993|By SHEILA R. AVERY

The right point, but the wrong interpretation. That is the best way to characterize Tom Waldron's story April 2 regarding state aid to independent colleges and universities.

The fact that only a handful of states provide direct financial support to private institutions does not mean that Maryland is wrong.

Rather, it suggests that most other states do not realize the value of private higher education and the importance of ensuring its viability. Or -- maybe -- other states do not enjoy the quality that is found in Maryland's private colleges and universities.

Maryland began providing financial support for private institutions 200 years ago, when there were no public colleges. It was a matter of access, providing education for the next generation of doctors, lawyers, clergy and community leaders.

What the state got for its money has a value far exceeding what the state paid: a wealth of excellent institutions that are as different from each other as they are from our public institutions, similar only in quality and commitment to serving their students.

Those colleges and universities enroll almost 40,000 students, more than half of whom are Maryland residents. In other words, the independent institutions are still doing their share to train the next generation of leaders in Maryland.

What does this cost? In the current fiscal year, state support for private colleges and universities is approximately $24 million or three percent of the state's total higher education budget. Interestingly, they educate 10 percent of the Marylanders enrolled in the state.

Given the disparity between their share of the state budget and the proportion of Marylanders attending private institutions, if the issue was taxpayer equity alone, a good argument could be made for shifting another $50 or $60 million away from public campuses and giving the money to private campuses.

But other arguments are more persuasive than the bean-counting indulged in by some members of the higher education community. One is the argument that the state's commitment to private colleges, over hundreds of years, has proven enormously beneficial to Maryland and the people of Maryland.

The state has gotten full value for its investment. It continues to do so, and there is no justification for dissolving the arrangement simply because faculty at public campuses want the money.

The second is that Maryland cannot afford to lose its private colleges and universities. None of them, not even Johns Hopkins, has been immune to the effects of the recession.

Even in the best of times, most private colleges and universities must practice economies that are not even contemplated on public campuses. Colleges and universities are fragile, and it would be short-sighted and selfish to weaken the independent segment to avoid much-needed cost containment on public campuses.

The truth is, if we lost our private institutions, we would be unable to replace them, and Maryland's economy and its people would suffer.

What is more, in many communities private colleges and universities are major employers. Whatever small savings we would achieve -- or, as some faculty must expect, whatever small increases in spending for public higher education we would see -- would be more than wiped out by the devastating effect on communities in Maryland.

The matter of faculty expectations is important. Indeed, it is central to the third argument. If we did decide to abolish the program, who would benefit?

Clearly, some faculty at public institutions seem to think that the money would be shifted to their budgets. They picture the governor and legislators making a bee-line to their campuses, checkbook in hand.

To believe that would happen is to exhibit naivete of the kind that saw the ''peace dividend'' solving the nation's social problems. It is probably unlikely that public campuses would see a penny of the money.

The competition for state dollars is intense, and I would expect the governor and the General Assembly to find uses for the funds other than higher education.

It is unlikely that legislators who have demanded an accounting of faculty productivity and less administrative staff would simply dump an extra $25 million or $30 million into the budgets of public campuses.

Then there is the matter of politics. The governing boards of Maryland's private colleges and universities are populated by some of the most influential supporters of higher education in the state, men and women who understand that the strength of higher education as a whole is important to Maryland and who understand that the budget for public campuses drives the budget for private institutions.

Take away that incentive and you eliminate those strong and persuasive voices arguing in favor of higher education spending.

In my experience, Maryland's private colleges and universities have never withheld their support for any undertaking that would benefit higher education as a whole, even if the chief beneficiaries were the public campuses.

When, last year, the higher education community campaigned in Annapolis to convince legislators that campuses could not sustain deeper cuts, the private colleges and universities were full participants.

The president of Johns Hopkins University joined the Chancellor of the University of Maryland System in writing an Opinion * Commentary article in The Sun arguing against further cuts to higher education spending. And when Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked colleges and universities to provide jobs and training for youth last summer, Maryland's private institutions helped eagerly.

Maryland's long-standing partnership with its private colleges and universities has benefited the state in countless ways. It should not, out of selfishness or lack of understanding, be undermined.

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

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