Better than one?

December 15, 2003

ECONOMIC AND political realities make it apparent that it's time for Maryland to tame its two-headed monster - the double-tiered bureaucracy overseeing the state's colleges and universities. Yet in all the screaming about rising tuition, crying about the deficit-saddled state budget, and calling for belt-tightening, neither the Maryland Higher Education Commission nor the University System of Maryland appears inclined to give ground on their mutual problem.

Both agencies prepare involved enrollment projections each year. Both administer state financial aid programs, in some cases for the same students. Both lobby for and promote higher education. Both regulate academic programs, though lawmakers reduced MHEC's authority in 1999.

The regents' office employs about 100 people and has an operating budget of about $11.5 million. The commissioners employ 75 people and have a $6.8 million administrative budget.

The very visible USM regents, who manage 11 colleges and universities, are gearing up for the annual battle for state aid. So is the low-profile MHEC, a coordinating body that sets policy affecting them and all of Maryland's public and private colleges, oversees the higher-education budget and administers state financial aid programs.

But in part because one is seen as the other's watchdog, they don't team up to eliminate duplicative functions or share when they probably should, as when regents recently considered possible tuition and financial aid reforms.

The commission roused recently to urge the regents to adopt more efficiencies as an alternative to raising tuition. It has pledged to dedicate itself in coming months to its biennial purpose for being: the drafting of a state master plan guiding Maryland's colleges on such issues as tuition, financial aid, diversity and mission.

In the absence of a direct order from the governor or legislature to clean up this mess, the status quo looks quite safe: a distracting tug-of-war over authority and wasteful duplication of effort.

A legislative committee is touring the state, listening to students' concerns about rising tuition and college presidents' appeals for more state aid. Meanwhile, though he is said to be interested in streamlining, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not put the wheels in motion or outlined a higher ed agenda. Last week, he appointed his second acting secretary of education, former Coppin President Calvin W. Burnett, who says that much might be improved if the two agencies would communicate better instead of operating so independently.

Their respective missions should be clarified, and any functions that can be merged should be - to produce savings and put state higher-education leaders' full resources on the vital work of ensuring Marylanders access to high-quality, affordable college programs.

The 1999 legislation intended to iron out the powers and duties of MHEC and the university system obviously didn't go far enough. It expires in June; for the future health of higher education here, lawmakers and the governor should seize this chance to get it right.

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