Making higher education a priority Increased funds: Glendening revives hopes for long-term commitment to state colleges.

January 12, 1998

IS THIS "deja vu all over again," as that noted social philosopher, Lawrence Peter Berra, once put it? Ten years ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer made a major commitment to public higher education in Maryland. Now, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made a similar pledge. Can Mr. Glendening succeed where his predecessor failed?

If so, it would be a long-overdue recognition that top-caliber state colleges and universities are essential for 21st-century Maryland's prosperity. Too often, higher education has been shunted aside by state leaders in favor of more popular causes, especially the constant demand for more local school aid in grades K-12. And when times are tough, higher education usually feels the budget pinch.

That's what happened during the administration of Governor Schaefer, who overhauled higher education governance in 1988 and then poured funds into state colleges and universities. But when recession hit Maryland, these same schools were asked to give back their gains -- and more.

Since then, Mr. Glendening has budgeted small increases for higher education to offset inflation, but nothing to compensate for those recession cuts. As a result, state funds as a percent of university revenue dropped by one-third between fiscal 1990 and 1998.

But times are now flush, and the governor is pledging a long-term boost in higher education funds. This could help the campuses recover ground lost since the recession.

Still, the governor's action came too late to influence the decision of William E. "Brit" Kirwan to leave College Park for the presidency of Ohio State University. Dr. Kirwan had been increasingly frustrated by the state's failure to live up to its 1988 funding pledge. He was a popular leader who vastly improved education performance at the state's flagship campus. But he never received the resources he felt were needed to catapult College Park into the top rung of public universities.

LTC Dr. Kirwan's successor may have better luck. Mr. Glendening's pledge to raise college and university spending for four years is sure to turn higher education into a campaign issue this summer. State lawmakers are beginning to speak out forcefully about the link between higher education and economic development. And business leaders are starting to press for colleges that produce better-trained workers.

It will be up to the General Assembly to support the governor's college-aid package. But it has to be more than a one-year commitment. Failure to make Maryland higher education a permanent priority would mean, in Mr. Berra's idiom, deja vu all over again -- once again.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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