Streamlining Community Colleges

January 12, 1995

By deciding to bring in a chancellor to manage Baltimore County's three community colleges, the schools' trustees have taken a long overdue step.

Since the system of colleges opened in 1957, each school has had its own president and administration. Common sense should have dictated years ago that such an approach, unique among U.S. jurisdictions with community colleges, would lead to confusion, duplication and other forms of mismanagement -- as it has on occasion.

But what common sense couldn't bring about, financial necessity will. County and state funding to the schools has dropped precipitously during the past several years. Baltimore County's contributions to the colleges at Catonsville, Dundalk and Essex declined by roughly 20 percent from 1988 to 1994, while the student population has increased. One result: Costs for local community college students have doubled since the mid-1970s.

Tuition hikes can offset only part of the widening gap between expenses and public funding. That's why the trustees and the schools' administrators have elected to streamline under a single chief officer. They sense -- correctly -- that this would make the system's operations more efficient and its finances more sound. The trustees also would gain a clearer understanding of the system's workings and thus be better able to fulfill their traditional duties. In the words of the consultant who recommended the consolidation, "The current three-college president structure deprives the board of a focused reporting and accountability structure. . . and distracts from the oversight function typically performed by boards."

The loss in site-based control should be made up for by leaner management of the entire system. The hiring of a chancellor, though, will be successful only if superfluous positions in the administrative ranks are eliminated. This cannot be an excuse to create another level of bureaucracy within a system that is already top-heavy.

Community colleges perform a valuable service. More than half of the Marylanders in college attend two-year schools. They range from young people earning degrees or preparing for transfers to four-year universities, to adults looking to sharpen their professional skills. The people who run the colleges are obliged to maintain the schools' value, even in the face of fiscal upheaval. Their decision to hire a chancellor to preside over the three Baltimore County colleges indicates that the local system's officials mean to uphold that obligation.

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