For most of its history, America met the challenge posed by large-scale social and economic change by creating whole new institutions dedicated to specific educational missions. In the mid-19th century, free public schools were a response to urbanization and a rapid influx of immigrants, while the land grant colleges reflected the steady westward movement of the frontier. The beginning of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of public high schools to train workers for a manufacturing and industrial economy. More recently, community colleges were created to fill a need for skilled workers.
But recognizing that that kind of all-out assault on educational need may no longer be feasible in today's climate of budget austerity, Maryland's Higher Education Commission is opting for different course. Shaila R. Aery, the higher education secretary, says her mandate from Governor Schaefer is to create in Maryland a higher education system that is a national model for quality, consistency and service. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, however, she has adopted an approach based on carefully targeting scarce resources to where they will produce the biggest return.
That is the thrust of the Maryland Higher Education Commission report released Monday, "Investing in People." In it, the commissioners urge continuing efforts to enhance the University Maryland's flagship campus at College Park, a reconsideration of plans to merge two of the university's Baltimore campuses, UMBC and UMAB, and a commitment by the legislature to set aside $50 million a year for programs aimed at meeting the state's most pressing higher education needs.
The commission also wants to ask a citizens' group to look into the value of merging this area's two historically black institutions, Morgan State University and Coppin State College, which it believes could benefit from the resulting efficiencies of scale.
Obviously, politics will play a large role in determining whether these idea ever become reality. Similar merger proposals were scrapped two years ago because of faculty and alumni opposition. And even if the governor and legislature agree in principle to substantial funding increases, there's no guarantee they won't continue to cut if the state budget crisis, as expected, deepens.
But on balance, these are realistic proposals, given Maryland's tough economic times. Any long-term plan should address complaints that piecemeal funding of state higher education has resulted in mediocrity. This is a program for getting the biggest bang for the buck. If that makes it controversial, so be it.