Over the past 18 months, the state's universities and colleges have lost 20 percent of their state funds -- $174 million in budget cuts. Some $20 million more in cuts are already being planned for this year.
A Maryland Higher Education Commission study, released last week, projects a $540 million gap by fiscal 1998 between available state resources and the amount of money it will take to run state colleges as they have been run.
So far, only the University of Maryland College Park among the state's public campuses has undertaken the difficult job of reviewing its programs and closing some. But the cuts this year and a realistic view to the future mean higher education officials have some tough choices to make.
The alternatives are not pleasant. But some unpleasant changes are preferable to allowing continued attrition of quality through across-the-board cuts that wound every aspect of higher education. Maryland's public colleges are being nibbled into mediocrity.
Better to consider some combination of the following structural changes:
* Closing academic programs. Which college departments and schools are under-enrolled? Not cost effective? Duplicated on other state campuses?
* Regroupings. Mergers, such as the one proposed between UM's Baltimore County and downtown branches, mean lower administrative costs. UM also oversees several research institutes with their own bureaucracies. This has to end.
* Higher tuitions and less state support. St. Mary's College cut a deal with the state last year to give it more autonomy. In exchange, it will receive less aid from the state and will gradually double tuition over five years. Other campuses or particular programs (especially graduate and professional programs) might benefit from similar arrangements -- not full privatization, but decreased state support and increased autonomy. Even without formal plans of the St. Mary's type, tuition has jumped as campuses struggle to cover for budget cuts. Care must be taken to increase scholarship aid to preserve access, but lots of students at public campuses can afford to pay more.
* Closing campuses. Even if the state could manage with one less college, each has its unique character -- and its strong base of political support. Each campus represents a substantial investment in state resources. But as money remains tight, even this step might have to be considered.
Educators have to start setting priorities and diverting what money is left into these areas. If that means closing campuses, privatizing certain colleges or consolidating administrative bureaucracies, so be it. Fiscal realities demand new, creative education strategies.