Facing the gathering storm

October 08, 2003|By Robert L. Caret

FOR A tropical storm to become a hurricane, conditions have to be just right. The combination of heat and moisture, along with the right wind conditions, must coalesce to create the momentum to fuel such an awesome force of nature.

In Maryland, and much of the country, several factors have come together to create a storm of another sort - a maelstrom over who is responsible for paying the cost of public higher education. As state appropriations have declined, the costs of education have risen and enrollments have steadily increased. This year in Maryland, the collision resulted in a 5 percent midyear tuition increase and an average 13 percent rise at University System of Maryland (USM) schools this fall.

As students and parents scramble for extra funds, university administrators and state decision-makers are scrambling for ways to maintain access and high-quality education for more students - with fewer dollars to do it. Ideas include charging more to well-off families or to students aiming for lucrative professions and charging less for classes at off-peak hours or for earlier graduation.

Add to this stormy mix the failure of Congress to raise the maximum level for Pell Grants, a federal program that provides funds for low-income students based on need. At the state level, the number of students that the Maryland Higher Education Commission has on a waiting list for aid has increased by 50 percent this fall to 9,281.

It might not be at hurricane strength yet, but the storm over tuition is definitely headed toward the tropical storm category.

But there's one thing that's very different about the current crisis over funding for public education.

Unlike past storms, this one won't disappear when the economy improves. This isn't just a passing phase of the typical boom-bust cycle in higher education and state appropriations. This shift has been gaining momentum for several years. Without change of some sort, this is the future of public higher education: declining state appropriations, increasing costs and increasing enrollments.

That means tuition will keep going up, endangering our mandate to provide public education for every student with the ability and the desire to attend. Or quality of education will decline, endangering the USM mandate to achieve national prominence.

We are at a critical juncture in higher public education.

This crossroads echoes where the nation stood in July 1945, when the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush, released the report "Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research."

Enjoining the federal government to make an enormous and enduring investment in basic scientific research, Mr. Bush's recommendations led to the expansion of large research universities as the crucible for the advancement of knowledge in social, cultural and economic arenas, not just for scientific advances. Through continued federal and state aid, our large public universities fueled the economic and industrial growth that has sustained the United States since the end of World War II.

At the crossroads where the technology age meets the liberal arts tradition of higher education, we must carefully assess the future direction of public higher education. In Maryland, the current tempest over tuition gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities, both at the USM and at individual institutions. It gives us the chance to fully engage the community - state legislators, state agencies, nonprofit organizations, private institutions, the K-12 community, businesses and individuals - in exploring creative ways to share responsibility and to chart the future course of public higher education.

Collaboration among constituents will bring new ways of looking at funding sources, solving complex social and economic issues and better educating our students.

One such example is the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the first library in the United States to be funded, managed and operated by a city and a major university. During my tenure at San Jose State University, the university joined forces with the city of San Jose to build the facility that now serves as an information hub for city residents, students and faculty and the employers and employees of the Silicon Valley.

As an institution, a university system and a state, we must list our priorities, establish our needs and set long-term goals.

We must lead the change that is before us, not let the change drive us - no matter what the weather brings.

Robert L. Caret is president of Towson University.

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