UMBC: 25th Birthday -- and Last?


In the early 1960s, Maryland was wondering how to deal with a college enrollment boom. The state, it was thought, needed more public universities besides the College Park campus. So College Park spun off the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in Catonsville, which celebrates its 25th birthday today.

Within a decade, things looked very different. Enrollments had leveled off. Where there had been no public universities in the Baltimore area, there now were four: the state took over the private (and financially ailing) University of Baltimore, and both Morgan State and Towson State were upgraded from colleges to universities.

Critics began to say that UMBC was a mistake. It was chronically under-enrolled. Although the school had hired many bright young scholars when it began, it was described as having "a graduate school faculty and a community college student body." In the cutthroat competition for state resources -- not only dollars, but programs now being allocated by a state board -- UMBC could not call on influential alumni or other constituency groups with clout.

Over the last decade, although neither dollars nor students were abundant, UMBC not only survived, it thrived. Building on its strong faculty base, it retained a solid liberal arts core and became recognized for particular strength in life sciences and biotechnology. It developed programs ranging from engineering to policy studies.

It grew in both quantity and quality. While enrollment increased over the last five years -- by 20 percent overall and by more than 150 percent in graduate programs -- the average Scholastic Aptitude Test score of entering freshmen increased also. And student retention improved, as the number of bachelor's degrees granted rose by 53 percent. Total research grants jumped from $3.5 million to $10.1 million, bringing UMBC closer to its goal of functioning as a major research university.

UMBC's president, Michael Hooker, has been adept at mobilizing the support of the business and political communities. Now, after this record of success, Mr. Hooker is helping to lead the charge to end UMBC, at least in its current form. On the table is a proposal to merge UMBC with the system's professional school campus downtown, a merger that promises administrative efficiency and improved research opportunities. We have long supported such a merger as the best way to give this region a full-service, comprehensive public university. The proposal would prove an apt birthday present for UMBC, one that should enhance the Catonsville campus as it begins its second quarter-century of service in higher education.

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