The lure of going `private'

EDUCATION BEAT

Independence: Public colleges and universities across the country that are considering becoming charter institutions are looking to a Maryland success story as a model.

Education Beat

January 28, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THREE OF Virginia's most prestigious institutions of higher education are seeking independence from the commonwealth as "chartered universities." In return for freedom from state regulation, say officials at the College of William & Mary, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, they will find their own financial way and rely less on state financing.

In short, they will walk the walk and talk the talk of private institutions, which in many ways they already are. For example, in the past 20 years, state aid to the University of Virginia has declined from nearly 28 percent of the operating budget to 8.1 percent.

Virginia's schools aren't alone. Across the Potomac, Maryland puts up just over a quarter of the University of Maryland, College Park's operating budget, and that's typical of the 11 campuses in the University System of Maryland. These are Maryland state schools in name only, and in the current budget crisis there's no hope of a sudden opening of state coffers.

Which is why in Maryland and across the country, higher education is abuzz over charter colleges and universities that are freed from the bureaucracy but pledged in return to take on greater responsibility.

The model many are looking at is St. Mary's College of Maryland, the Southern Maryland institution that (along with Morgan State University) opted out of the university system in the late 1980s and was granted charter status in 1992. More than a decade later, those who crafted what St. Mary's President Margaret O'Brien calls "the deal" say it has been worth it.

Under the deal, St. Mary's accepts a yearly block grant pegged to inflation. But it has its own governing board pledged to raise money privately (including tuition income) and maintain the academic quality of a first-rate private college.

"It's a public institution that's allowed to pretty much behave as a private one," says Steven Muller, retired Johns Hopkins University president who helped engineer the deal and served for more than a decade as St. Mary's board chairman before retiring last month.

"People thought we were crazy" going it alone, Muller says, "but if we hadn't thought we could raise money on our own, it would have been futile."

State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who as governor signed the St. Mary's charter legislation, agrees. "The secret has been the board and the president, Maggie O'Brien," he says. "Couldn't have done it with an ordinary board. This one was high-powered. People listen to them."

With fairly predictable annual funding, St. Mary's raised tuition early on to a higher level than that of other state schools, further cementing its reputation as a semi-private college. During the generous spending years of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, St. Mary's formula yielded smaller increases in state funding than the other public campuses.

Then St. Mary's had to accept state cuts along with the other schools in the budget crisis of the 2000s. Still, the result is that since 1998, St. Mary's has boosted tuition by 23 percent, while the university system has increased tuition much more - by an average of 32 percent, according to a St. Mary's study.

The school remains the most expensive public college in Maryland, but the others - thanks to the stiff tuition increases of the past two years - are catching up. A year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (the "honors university" of Maryland; St. Mary's is the official "honors college") costs a state resident about $14,400. It's $15,000 at St. Mary's, and you get small classes, an especially fine faculty and the sun over the St. Mary's River.

The jury's out on whether big schools like UMBC or College Park could become effective charter schools. Robert Berdahl, a College Park professor emeritus who has studied the St. Mary's charter experiment, favors state deregulation but says it would be much more difficult at a campus as complex and diverse as College Park, which shares a governing board with 10 other campuses. "It would be pretty damned awkward to treat them all as qualitatively equal," Berdahl says.

University system Chancellor William E. Kirwan says he doubts that big universities like College Park will become charters soon.

"State money is an ever-smaller part of our budget," he says, "but it's the most precious part. It's the part we spend on our primary mission, which is academics. I think the charter idea is more likely viable at small institutions with something of an elite status and large endowments."

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