private schools

The Baltimore Sun

As Maryland weighs painful cuts in its struggle to achieve a balanced budget, how can the state justify providing financial support for Maryland's 18 private colleges and universities? That's the question raised by recent critics. Their question deserves an answer.

State support for independent institutions reaches back as far as the 18th century. Known in its current form as the Sellinger program - after the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, longtime president of Loyola College - this funding has been evaluated and endorsed time and again by various state study commissions, by the Maryland Higher Education Commission (of which I am the chairman), by Gov. Martin O'Malley's transition team on higher education, and by successive state higher-education master plans. Maryland is one of 46 states that provide financial support to their independent institutions.

The critics might have a persuasive argument against state support if independent institutions were not using Sellinger funds wisely. But they are. Independent institutions are playing an essential role in addressing critical work force shortage needs in the state. Each year, they graduate nearly half of our state's new nurses and 36 percent of our state's new teacher candidates. In 2008, half of those honored as teachers of the year in Maryland's 24 counties and Baltimore city were graduates of the independent sector. Seventy-five percent of Sellinger funds are devoted to helping Maryland students pay for college. Contrary to conventional wisdom, students who attend Maryland's independent institutions come from families whose incomes mirror the incomes of families whose students attend public institutions. But what about the vast wealth represented by their endowments? With such wealth, do independent institutions need or deserve state support?

Endowments among independent schools in Maryland range from nonexistent to, yes, billions in the case of the Johns Hopkins University. Endowments represent (or did, in normal economic times) financial predictability for independent institutions. Income earned from endowments constitutes a guarantee of sorts of predictable annual revenue to help support operations. In that sense, for independent institutions, endowments are the functional equivalent of the access to public funding that our public institutions are guaranteed. So to address the charge that endowments negate the need for state support, let's do some equivalency testing.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore will receive about $185 million in state funding next year for the 6,000 students it educates. But if the university had to rely on endowment income rather than state funding for that $185 million, it would need an endowment of about $3.7 billion. Now, the endowment of Hopkins, which educates slightly fewer than 20,000 students, is $2.4 billion. So, if a smaller public university possesses access to the functional equivalent of a $3.7 billion endowment, what validity is there in arguing that the endowment of the larger and even more complex Hopkins negates the need for, or legitimacy of, Sellinger funding?

In this current year's budget, the state is providing $1.5 billion to support operating costs in public higher education and $50 million to support operating costs in the independent sector. The state's relatively modest support for independent colleges and universities is an investment that pays significant dividends. Maryland's colleges and universities, both public and independent, are the envy of other states, in no small part because of smart public policies such as the Sellinger program.

Kevin O'Keefe, an executive with an international public relations firm and chairman of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, holds degrees from both an independent college and a public university. His e-mail is kokeefe@webershandwick.com.

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