Two state agencies oversee, overlap on higher education

Overhaul mulled to close big Md. budget shortfall

`There's room for savings'

January 14, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

As Maryland faces a $1.7 billion budget shortfall, its colleges and universities are bracing for unprecedented tuition increases and possible campus layoffs.

All but untouched, however, is the state's well-kept secret: a double-layered higher education bureaucracy where two agencies that cost millions to run spend much of their time duplicating each other's work.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission has a staff of 82 people and a $6.8 million administrative budget. The central office of the University System of Maryland has 103 employees and an operating budget of $11.5 million.

Both agencies are charged with building public support for higher education. Both help develop the budget requests of the state's colleges and universities. Both regulate academic offerings.

In the most direct duplication, both spend long hours every year to produce enrollment projections for the state's colleges.

Some wonder whether Maryland can afford two agencies with overlapping duties to oversee higher education, funded at levels higher than equivalent departments in most states.

"There's room for savings at the top of [both] agencies," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of the Budget and Taxation subcommittee that oversees education spending. "To the extent we can save money there to limit tuition increases, I say, `Absolutely.' "

Defenders of Maryland's higher education bureaucracy say both agencies have a role to play but acknowledge that the state could be getting more for its money. The answer, they say, is to overhaul the Higher Education Commission to rededicate it to its founding mission - giving impartial, forceful guidance to post-secondary education in all its forms.

Ehrlich weighs options

According to those familiar with the discussions of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s transition team, both options - downsizing and revamping the commission - are being considered as Ehrlich prepares to release his budget later this week.

It isn't the first time those in power have taken a hard look at the higher education bureaucracy, which, according to a survey by The Sun, is more costly than those in other states. But despite attempts to reduce duplication, the agencies' combined budgets have continued to grow.

The Higher Education Commission and the central office of the university system date to 1988, when the legislature decided to create a University System of Maryland made up of 11 of the state's four-year colleges. Morgan State University and St. Mary's College were excluded.

Worried that this new creation would dominate higher education in the state, officials at private colleges fought for a separate agency to represent institutions outside the system.

"It's important to have some entity at the state level to think about policy generally, not just in the context of a single institution," said Paul E. Lingenfelter, director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association in Denver.

Hence the commission, which is often called by its acronym, MHEC. Housed in a nondescript building beside the Westfield Mall in Annapolis and overseen by a board of 12 unpaid gubernatorial appointees, it is supposed to coordinate all of higher education in Maryland - public and private four-year colleges, community colleges and private career schools.

Its staff collects data on enrollment and graduation rates, lobbies legislators on behalf of all the state's colleges and manages most state scholarships, among other duties.

Higher Education Secretary Karen R. Johnson, who heads the agency, said its aim is to argue for higher education from the perspective of the state's needs - as opposed to the system office, which she said argues for its own institutions. "Our role is to advocate for what the higher education community needs to achieve its goals," she said.

Every two years, the commission writes a plan laying out the state's work-force needs and how colleges can meet them. Beyond that, though, the agency's impact on higher education is nebulous, critics say, because it has little policy-making power.

Despite its broad purview and ample budget, the commission has failed to tackle hard questions facing higher education, such as the need for better teacher training in the state, critics contend.

This month's meeting of the commission's education policy committee was canceled because there was nothing on the agenda; the 10 agenda items at a full commission meeting in April included a name change for Garrett Community College and an update on "Maryland-Estonia cooperation."

"I don't think it's been very influential," said Frank A. Schmidtlein, an expert on higher education administration at the University of Maryland, College Park who, on principle, favors statewide agencies like the commission.

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