Too many Marylanders want to learn

EDUCATION BEAT

College: The state's four-year public schools don't have the space or money to accommodate all able students, forcing many to look elsewhere.

October 06, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

HERE IS the problem in a nutshell:

In 2008, Maryland high schools will graduate the largest class in history. At least half of its students will want to go on to college. But Maryland's public colleges and universities don't have enough room for them.

That's very simplistic, of course. Taken as a whole, Maryland higher education may have the room, but it's unevenly distributed. The University of Maryland, College Park, the flagship school, is full to the brim. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore has the space, but how many white kids from Howard County will cross the Bay Bridge to live and study at a historically black university?

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, sees a "perfect storm brewing." While enrollment surges, state support isn't keeping pace, forcing the schools to raise tuition, thus gradually transferring the financial burden of public higher education from taxpayer to student.

Meanwhile, selectivity in admissions "has been forced on all public universities," says C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., president of College Park.

When Mote arrived in 1998, College Park had 17,000 applications for roughly 4,000 freshman places. Last year, applications were in the 23,000 to 24,000 range. This year, Mote predicts, College Park will offer admission to 10,000 students, 40 percent of whom will accept.

With a pool like that from which to choose, College Park and other schools at the top of the academic food chain get more selective each year. (With extra credit given for Advanced Placement courses, the average high school grade point average of incoming freshmen at some elite public universities is higher than 4.0.) Students who can't crack the flagship campus then seek admission to the "comprehensive" four-year schools, like Towson University.

These universities also become more selective, and students who can't gain admission turn to community colleges.

The result? "What's happening is that we're getting more strong students, those whose aspirations of spending four years at a state university have been deferred," says Ronald A. Williams, president of Prince George's Community College. "And so we're bifurcated, the weak students at the bottom, the strong at the top, not much change in the middle."

Calvin W. Burnett, the Maryland secretary of higher education, says the trend toward a more elite system of higher education "is very dangerous for American society. It falls right into the hands of those people who think not everyone should go to college."

Needless to say, no higher-education official thinks Maryland is fulfilling its financial responsibility. "We still don't have the facilities to accommodate enrollment growth," says Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State University, where dozens of freshmen are sleeping this fall in converted lounges and other makeshift rooms. Stanley F. Battle, Richardson's counterpart at Coppin State University, says extra "enhancement" funds for historically black schools are helpful but not up to the formidable task.

Burnett heads a blue-ribbon task force that's attempting to come up with a coherent statewide plan to cope with Kirwan's perfect storm. The panel won't make recommendations until later this fall, but here are a few it's considering:

Concentrate growth in the comprehensive four-year schools: Towson, Bowie, Salisbury and Frostburg. Robert L. Caret, Towson's president, says he hopes for enough resources to handle an additional 500 to 800 students a year until the school reaches 20,000 by the end of the decade. "But accommodating growth doesn't come free," he says. "The biggest expense is hiring faculty."

Shift funds in the state's $80 million student aid program from scholarships based on academic merit to those based on need. The shift is needed, says Kirwan, because a disproportionate number of the newcomers will be low-income minorities.

Discourage those who tarry. Students who hang around for five, six and seven years before they earn a degree cost money and take up space. Kirwan says the task force is likely to recommend policies that discourage lingering, such as limiting the number of credits students can take in their majors.

Make better use of time and space, such as scheduling more classes on weekends and Fridays. (Some campuses are virtually deserted Friday afternoons.)

Expand course offerings at regional centers such as the Universities at Shady Grove in Montgomery County and online.

If Maryland doesn't get a grip on the enrollment surge, says Kirwan, "we'll have a calamity on our hands."

The irony of upheaval at troubled Walbrook High

Wouldn't you think that Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy would have enough police, fire and military officers in training to keep the peace?

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