College competition: Is more really more?

No: Setting limits protects uniqueness

May 14, 2000|By Earl S. Richardson

SINCE AT least 1978, Maryland has tried to make sure that new academic programs at its state universities do not unnecessarily duplicate programs at sister campuses. That policy ensures some degree of uniqueness in campus roles, missions and programs. It also provides a rational system for allocating programs and a prudent investment of state tax dollars.

Now, as universities face competion from a surge of courses offered on the Internet, some ask whether the state's policy still makes sense. The issue figures prominently in Maryland's efforts to promote excellence, equity and economy in its system of higher education, especially in the Baltimore region, where there is a large concentration of colleges and universities.

I agree with the statement made by the Provost of the University of Baltimore in a letter published in The Sun on May 11: "We do not believe the existence of on-line programs and relatively unregulated for-profit programs that cross state boundaries justifies a no-holds barred competition among public institutions." In brief, the state's longstanding policy provides a valuable mechanism for rationalizing what would otherwise be an irrational system. It also has been an effective strategy for achieving racial diversity on campuses.

The General Assembly reviewed the policy again last year and reaffirmed it as one of three criteria to consider in approving new academic programs. Programs also must be consistent with each school's mission and comply with equal opportunity obligations.

Maryland has the very unusual situation of having 26 of its 33 public and private four-year institutions of higher education concentrated in a narrow corridor between Baltimore and Washington. Nine of the 13 senior public institutions are in this region. Six are within a 12-mile radius of Baltimore City. Although it is unlikely that this concentration would be replicated if one were designing the state's system of higher education today, the current array of colleges and universities present enormous opportunity. If not properly managed, this arrangement could become the source of perilous competition, divisiveness, and a waste of public resources.

Appropriately coordinated, the various Baltimore area colleges and universities can pursue separate, distinct and complementary missions in a cooperative and collaborative fashion. Together, these campuses can provide a wide array of quality academic programs and educational experiences and act as an enormous resource for economic development and community enrichment. Within a well-coordinated system, the state increases the likelihood that students will make enrollment choices in ways that increase the racial and ethnic diversity on our campuses as well. It also is a time-tested means of ensuring that quality continues to improve and that when the current positive fiscal situation changes, which it undoubtedly will, campuses will not face the task of having to support more programs than they are capable of offering effectively.

Morgan's history illustrates the impact of both uniqueness and duplication. Until the mid-1960s, Morgan was the only public four-year liberal arts institution in the Baltimore area. As such, it grew rapidly. Its full-time undergraduate enrollment nearly doubled between 1965 and 1972, when it enrolled nearly 5,300 undergraduates. In 1972, it also enrolled 1,040 graduate students, nearly three times as many as five years earlier and almost twice the number that the University enrolls currently. Of the graduate students enrolled in 1972, 42 percent were white and a total of 49 percent were other than African-American. One year earlier, graduate enrollment had been 48 percent white and 55 percent non-black.

However, as Morgan lost its uniqueness to the development of other area campuses, enrollments plummeted to a low of 3,400 students. The decline in non-black enrollments was even more dramatic. Only after adding several unique undergraduate and graduate programs did the precipitous enrollment decline give way to near-record growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among the programs unique to the campus are undergraduate programs in civil, electrical, and industrial engineering and graduate programs in educational administration, architecture and transportation. In the last five years, several doctoral programs have been added.

Other colleges and universities in the Baltimore area have their own set of unique programs. This distinctiveness generally is respected within the state higher education commuity and institutions typically have tried to avoid duplicating each other's programs except in those undergraduate disciplines that are common to most campuses. Only recently, and in the case of Baltmore institutions wishing to add programs currently unique to Morgan, has unnecessary duplication become an issue of significant contention.

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