Don't undercut gains of Md. universities

October 10, 2002|By William W. Destler

MARYLAND BUDGET officials are wrestling with the prospect of significant shortfalls in revenue in the current fiscal year and a likely continuation of the problem in the next.

For them and for candidates for governor and the General Assembly, it will be tempting to address the problem by significantly cutting state funding for public higher education. The public and our elected representatives must understand that such an approach would do more harm than good, both to the citizens and the economy of Maryland.

Why? Because our public higher education institutions are increasingly becoming the most important driver in the state's economic development.

One manifestation of this role is that the rapid improvement in our public colleges and universities, fueled by increases in state support for our public institutions, has virtually eliminated the "brain drain" of our best high school students out of Maryland.

When I arrived in College Park in 1973, the great "sucking sound" heard around the state was that of Maryland's best high-schoolers heading north to the Ivy League and south to Virginia, Duke and North Carolina.

Today, fully half of Maryland's high school valedictorians and salutatorians list the University of Maryland, College Park as their first choice for study upon graduation. The quality of students attracted to other public colleges and universities in the state also has increased dramatically. These students have stayed in Maryland because of the improvement in education programs and the affordable tuition made possible by state appropriations.

Significant reductions in state funding to higher education are certain to have a negative impact on program quality and tuition affordability.

Students graduating from Maryland colleges and universities are far more likely to seek employment in Maryland after graduation than those who leave the state to pursue a college education. The availability of a top-notch, educated work force is a critical element in attracting new business to Maryland.

Another indication of the key role our higher education institutions play in the state's economic development is the extraordinary growth in statewide entrepreneurship.

For example, there is a dormitory at College Park filled with students who want to start businesses upon graduation.

In addition, the extraordinary growth in research programs at the university's campuses at College Park, Baltimore and Baltimore County has fueled the development of new technologies, resulting in new products and services offered by existing and start-up companies in the state.

New businesses growing out of our public university incubators are finding permanent locations in every region of the state. Most new jobs in the state are created by start-up ventures such as these.

Our state's public colleges and universities are also among Maryland's largest economic engines. The combined budgets of the three campuses approach $2 billion, and they employ about 30,000 people.

The state appropriation for these institutions is a small but essential fraction of this $2 billion. This state money not only provides the basic infrastructure at our public colleges and universities but it also keeps tuition within the reach of Maryland families.

It is tempting to target Maryland public higher education for significant budget reductions in light of the strong support that these institutions received from the governor and General Assembly in the past four years. But these increases, as generous as they were, only brought funding up to an average of about 78 percent of that received at comparable institutions nationwide.

For these investments, the taxpayers have seen a real return on their investment in terms of the quality and quantity of students educated, new businesses generated and attracted to the state, jobs created and additional tax revenues generated. In fact, recent studies of the economic impact of College Park and Baltimore indicate that the state's economy grows by more than $4 for every $1 invested by the state in these institutions.

It would be a tragedy for the state if the extraordinary progress that has been made were jeopardized by funding reductions at these institutions that might inevitably cost the state more tax dollars than they saved. Surely there is a better way to deal with the state's temporary budgetary crisis.

William W. Destler is a senior vice president and provost of the University of Maryland, College Park.

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