College competition: Is more really more?


SINCE AT least 1978, Maryland has tried to make sure that new academic programs at its state universities do not unnecessarily duplicate programs at sister campuses. That policy ensures some degree of uniqueness in campus roles, missions and programs. It also provides a rational system for allocating programs and a prudent investment of state tax dollars.

Now, as universities face competion from a surge of courses offered on the Internet, some ask whether the state's policy still makes sense. The issue figures prominently in Maryland's efforts to promote excellence, equity and economy in its system of higher education, especially in the Baltimore region, where there is a large concentration of colleges and universities.

I agree with the statement made by the Provost of the University of Baltimore in a letter published in The Sun on May 11: "We do not believe the existence of on-line programs and relatively unregulated for-profit programs that cross state boundaries justifies a no-holds barred competition among public institutions." In brief, the state's longstanding policy provides a valuable mechanism for rationalizing what would otherwise be an irrational system. It also has been an effective strategy for achieving racial diversity on campuses.

The General Assembly reviewed the policy again last year and reaffirmed it as one of three criteria to consider in approving new academic programs. Programs also must be consistent with each school's mission and comply with equal opportunity obligations.

Maryland has the very unusual situation of having 26 of its 33 public and private four-year institutions of higher education concentrated in a narrow corridor between Baltimore and Washington. Nine of the 13 senior public institutions are in this region. Six are within a 12-mile radius of Baltimore City. Although it is unlikely that this concentration would be replicated if one were designing the state's system of higher education today, the current array of colleges and universities present enormous opportunity. If not properly managed, this arrangement could become the source of perilous competition, divisiveness, and a waste of public resources.

Appropriately coordinated, the various Baltimore area colleges and universities can pursue separate, distinct and complementary missions in a cooperative and collaborative fashion. Together, these campuses can provide a wide array of quality academic programs and educational experiences and act as an enormous resource for economic development and community enrichment. Within a well-coordinated system, the state increases the likelihood that students will make enrollment choices in ways that increase the racial and ethnic diversity on our campuses as well. It also is a time-tested means of ensuring that quality continues to improve and that when the current positive fiscal situation changes, which it undoubtedly will, campuses will not face the task of having to support more programs than they are capable of offering effectively.

Morgan's history illustrates the impact of both uniqueness and duplication. Until the mid-1960s, Morgan was the only public four-year liberal arts institution in the Baltimore area. As such, it grew rapidly. Its full-time undergraduate enrollment nearly doubled between 1965 and 1972, when it enrolled nearly 5,300 undergraduates. In 1972, it also enrolled 1,040 graduate students, nearly three times as many as five years earlier and almost twice the number that the University enrolls currently. Of the graduate students enrolled in 1972, 42 percent were white and a total of 49 percent were other than African-American. One year earlier, graduate enrollment had been 48 percent white and 55 percent non-black.

However, as Morgan lost its uniqueness to the development of other area campuses, enrollments plummeted to a low of 3,400 students. The decline in non-black enrollments was even more dramatic. Only after adding several unique undergraduate and graduate programs did the precipitous enrollment decline give way to near-record growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among the programs unique to the campus are undergraduate programs in civil, electrical, and industrial engineering and graduate programs in educational administration, architecture and transportation. In the last five years, several doctoral programs have been added.

Other colleges and universities in the Baltimore area have their own set of unique programs. This distinctiveness generally is respected within the state higher education commuity and institutions typically have tried to avoid duplicating each other's programs except in those undergraduate disciplines that are common to most campuses. Only recently, and in the case of Baltmore institutions wishing to add programs currently unique to Morgan, has unnecessary duplication become an issue of significant contention.

No one proposes to start another program in law, medicine, dentistry, or pharmacy, though many of us would find it exciting and prestigious to do so. The state already has outstanding programs in those areas. In the case of law, we already have two public campuses within a few blocks of one another. To develop other such programs obviously would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Although less dramatic, duplicate programs in other areas also would be wasteful. The question arises whether campuses can develop if preventing unnecessary duplication remains an explicit policy of the state. They certainly can.

According to data provided by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, last year alone in the Baltimore area, Coppin received approval to begin three new academic programs. Towson got approval for 12, the University of Baltimore four, and University of Maryland Baltimore County four. Morgan, by the way, began one program of its own.

Some suggest that with the advent of the Internet and the capability of faculty to offer courses across the globe, the concept of unnecessary program duplication has outlived its usefulness. They say that the application of new technology will make students less likely to physically attend a given campus to obtain their education. It also is argued that offering courses on-line unleashes competition among campuses that will require each to offer as many programs as possible in order to compete with other, more entrepreneurial campuses.

Unfortunately, such generalizations ignore the fact that Internet technology, as great as it is, simply offers an additional means for the delivery of programs. It is not a policy for the assignment of programs. It fails to recognize that "distant" learning is likely to be most attractive to continuing education students., while during the next 10 years we are faced with strong growth in high school graduates and a corresponding increase in the number of young students wishing to enroll in our campuses.

The generalizations about the potential uses of technology for distant learning also ignore the important socialization that the college experience provides to students who attend classes on campus, interacting with one another and with faculty and staff in the process. This socialization is becoming of increasing importance as society becomes more diverse and as the reality of a global economy makes understanding other cultures more critical. The most important use of technology will almost certainly be in allowing us to improve what we are doing already for our enrolled students, providing them with options for enriching their educational experiences and making some of their course-taking more convenient.

Finally, tensions over unnecessary duplication in the Baltimore area will undoubtedly continue. Such tensions may intensify as the state continues to pursue the goal of creating institutional parity among public colleges in program uniqueness and variety, campus faculties and facilities, and overall competitiveness for students regardless of race. But the state must stay the course if it is to act in the best long-term interests of the citizens of Maryland.

Dr. Richardson is president of Morgan State University.

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