Rising to the challenge

February 04, 2004|By Clifford Kendall

DO MARYLANDERS expect and deserve a top-quality public higher education system that is accessible and affordable for a growing number of students?

As chairman of the University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents, I answer "yes," confidently and unequivocally.

With the 2004 session of the General Assembly under way and proposals already on the table that will affect USM's ability to ensure students' affordable access to a quality higher education, I call for the following:

We must broaden the discussion about the appropriate funding of public higher education. The discussion must focus on much more than balancing the books.

USM must demonstrate its cost-containment actions more visibly. Maryland's elected officials and the public are entitled to a fuller understanding of the system's efforts.

We must embrace the principle that the cost of providing a high-quality education is a shared responsibility of the state, higher education institutions and students.

Since the system's creation in 1988, USM has made major strides in achieving its state-mandated goal of national eminence. USM institutions have gained widespread recognition for excellence and innovation as they prepare a growing number of students for success in Maryland's knowledge economy, conduct leading-edge research and provide outreach services. Now, the university system is at a critical juncture.

Just a decade ago, state appropriations constituted 34 percent or the largest part of USM's total operating budget. Today, as a result of Maryland's fiscal situation, state funding constitutes less than 25 percent; it is now the smallest portion of the budget's three primary funding sources (the others are tuition and fee revenue, and research contracts and grants, each at 29 percent).

Two years ago, state appropriations to USM totaled nearly $865 million. For the current fiscal year, state funding totals $746 million, a 14 percent drop.

Two years ago, USM student enrollment was just over 119,000. Today, it's nearly 126,000, and it's projected to increase more than 22 percent over the next seven years.

Each year, USM, like other organizations, must absorb rising expenses, including increased costs of health insurance, debt service on facilities construction and renovation, opening new facilities and serving a rapidly expanding student population.

In other words, we are grappling with a triple whammy: less state funding, more students and rising expenses.

Even while dealing with these realities, the university system continues to find ways to maximize its effectiveness and efficiency in delivering high-quality programs.

For example, USM capitalizes on its system structure to gain collective value from its resources -- the system's center at Shady Grove in Montgomery County, where eight USM institutions provide low-cost access to a range of programs. These programs are meeting high student and statewide demand in such critical areas as bio-sciences, information sciences, business, nursing and education, and for far less than it would cost to educate the students at traditional residential campuses.

The regents and the system leaders are developing and implementing strategies to:

Reduce the time that students take to graduate.

Offer incentives to institutions that achieve significant cost savings and enhance revenues for investment in program quality.

Use campus facilities more efficiently.

Identify more opportunities for privatization and outsourcing.

Create systemwide service centers and reduce costs through economy of scale.

Meeting the challenges facing the university system while maintaining quality requires a strong partnership between Maryland's elected officials and USM.

The university system is committed to providing excellent and affordable opportunities to a growing student population. Given the projected enrollment increases and the state's work force needs, capping enrollment is not a viable option. Given our commitment to access, continuously imposing large tuition increases is undesirable.

The Board of Regents recently approved a new tuition policy that requires USM institutions to develop four-year tuition plans. Ideally, this policy will help to ensure some predictability in tuition increases, giving families the ability to plan long term.

But the shared responsibility for quality and access also requires adequate and predictable investment by the state. With such investments, I pledge that USM will expand capacity to meet the growing enrollment demands and provide all qualified students with an excellent, affordable education.

This is what Marylanders deserve and have a right to expect.

Clifford Kendall is chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, the governing body of the state's public higher education system.

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