The slow leak

September 27, 2004

DRIP. DRIP. DRIP.

Like an engine leaking oil, falling academic standards decline in tiny increments. Educational excellence is neither attained nor lost overnight. But one day, you find a little oil puddle on the driveway. You swear you'll do something about it, only to be shocked when time passes and the car is junkyard bound.

Somebody might want to check under the hood in College Park, where the University of Maryland's latest undergraduates are a tiny bit less impressive than last year's. Collectively, the freshmen have SAT scores 20 points below the previous year's and an average grade point average of 3.85, down from 3.88. What's that amount to? An A-minus in high school chemistry instead of an A? Maybe a few kids who dropped their No. 2 pencils during the standardized test?

School administrators agree that the change is small. But it's the direct result of a slight loosening of admission standards -- which was itself the result of recent tuition increases of 30 percent over the last several years. Why the higher tuition? Well, that's due to the fact that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has cut millions of dollars from the state's higher-education budget.

Drip, drip, drip.

This could be a one-year aberration, but it could also be the start of a downward trend. Mr. Ehrlich has pledged not to make more big cuts in higher education, but it's not clear whether he's ever going to restore the system's funding to the level of years past. Last spring, he vetoed legislation that would have temporarily capped tuition increases at 5 percent for the entire university system and guaranteed more money in the budget for College Park.

The University of Maryland has made dramatic improvements over the past couple of decades. There was no magic in how this was accomplished: It cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And it was money well spent. The school is an important asset to this state's economy. In an information-driven society, high-quality higher education is more valuable than ever.

Maryland can ill afford to let the university's standards slip away, not if the state's residents want their children or grandchildren to have access to a quality education. There's still plenty of time to fix the problem. But if it continues to be ignored -- if the higher-education budget is continually squeezed without regard to the impact on quality -- it won't be too long before there's not much of value left on the driveway.

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