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Reining in college costs: an agenda for Maryland

President Barack Obama is right.

For several decades, college tuitions in our country have risen relentlessly, faster than inflation and faster than economic growth — much like health care costs. Unless we get them under control, we'll continue to fall behind other countries in advanced skills.

The good news is that Maryland has developed the model for how to do it. But we've just scratched the surface.

There are four major ways to make college more affordable:

•increase state investment in our public colleges;

•increase efficiency in the delivery of instruction;

•increase college credits earned in high school and decrease need for remediation in college;

•increase competition from innovative public and private colleges.

Under Gov.Martin O'Malley, Maryland has pursued all four strategies.

First, starting with the four-year tuition freeze and continuing with the current 3 percent tuition cap, increased state support has knocked Maryland tuition down from seventh-highest in America to 23rd today. Maryland largely protected public colleges from budget cuts and targeted state funds to hold down tuition.

Second, even before Governor O'Malley took office, a bipartisan group in which I participated on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents designed an Effectiveness and Efficiency initiative to drive down costs while increasing good education. Traditionalists were initially skeptical. But by squeezing inefficiencies out of non-instructional costs, such as energy, and redesigning big lecture courses to use modern technology, savings of more than $100 million have been found — and education improved.

Third, both the governor and former state schools SuperintendentNancy S. Grasmickhave championed AP courses and other ways high school students can earn credits before they get to college. Every AP credit they earn saves their families tuition and saves the public tax dollars. Every student who is well prepared in high school doesn't need remediation.

Fourth, while traditional institutions have slowly embraced the Web, Maryland has seen an explosion in new choices for our students. From for-profit colleges like Strayer and Walden to out-of-state public and nonprofit colleges like Western Governors University and Penn State Online, tens of thousands of Maryland students attend innovative colleges. And, of course, University of Maryland University College, despite losing market share in the last decade, remains one of America's major online universities.

But Maryland can do much more to expand college affordability. Two initiatives are included in legislation I'm sponsoring this year.

The first would make permanent Governor O'Malley's tuition cap for public universities. The Tuition Cap and College Opportunity Act of 2012 would limit tuition hikes to the amount the state's median family income increases, averaged over three years. This provision would be tied to mandated state funding for higher education, just as local school funding is mandated under state law. The cost would be significant — hundreds of millions of dollars a year — but the benefits to our economy of making our investment comparable to that of competing states would be even greater.

The second, the College Affordability and Innovation Act of 2012, would promote competency-based, online, and other innovative strategies to bring college educations to more Marylanders. Nonprofits such as Excelsior and UMUC already award credit to students who show in rigorous tests that they know college material — even if they haven't taken a traditional course. Students with work experience, such as veterans, are perfect targets. But so are more traditional students who come to standard courses with widely varying preparation. Similarly, online courses have proved efficient at bringing education to students on their schedules, instead of bringing students to campuses.

Finally, huge opportunities remain for Maryland's public colleges to cut costs and improve education by redesigning courses and maximizing college credits earned in high school. "Course redesign" sounds boring and technical, but it's revolutionary, a truly disruptive social technology. The traditional business model for higher education — 500 students in lecture halls supported by smaller sections led by graduate students — turns out often to be more costly and less effective than online courses supported by professors and undergrads working as coaches and tutors. Today, only a fraction of Maryland college students' courses have been modernized to cut costs and boost learning. Similarly, while most University of Maryland, College Park freshmen bring some advanced placement credits from high school, too many require remedial courses to catch up. The goal should be no remedial courses and many more college credits for freshman.

A four-year college education is not for everybody. But for those who can benefit from it, it must be affordable.

Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat who represents College Park, is a former member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents' Effectiveness and Efficiency Work Group and a current member of the Senate Education Subcommittee. His email is jcrosapepe@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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