Educating the work force

Maryland ranks third among the states in the proportion of adults with bachelor's degrees and second in the percentage with advanced degrees. We're No. 2 in the percentage of the work force in professional occupations and No. 1 in management, business and financial occupations. It is no surprise, then, that Maryland's household income is consistently the highest in the nation and its unemployment rate among the lowest. In an increasingly globalized economy, there's a term for that: not good enough.

That's why the 10-year plan approved this month by the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents is so important. Its premise is that Maryland, despite its well-educated workforce, advantageous proximity to Washington and strong infrastructure in health care, research and other high-tech fields, will still be unable to compete unless it significantly increases the proportion of residents with advanced training, fosters a culture of entrepreneurship and boosts the number of people graduating with degrees in math, science and technology.

The highlights of the plan are a goal to increase the percentage of Marylanders with two- or four-year degrees from the current 44 percent to 55 percent by the end of the decade; add 45,000 students and 10,000 graduates a year to the university system; double research funding to more than $2 billion a year and to spin off more businesses from discoveries in the lab; and graduate 40 percent more students with degrees in science and technology.

Of course, that's easier said than done. Each of the system's campuses is supposed to submit a plan to help achieve those goals next month, and it will almost certainly require more state funding at a time when the budget is severely strained as it is. But the goals are achievable.

The drive to increase enrollment comes at a time when the state's massive investment in K-12 education through the Thornton plan should be providing greater numbers of students who are academically qualified for higher education. The state can accommodate all those students both by fostering greater integration of community colleges and four-year universities through "two-plus-two" programs that provide a seamless transition from one campus to another. That's already happening at the system's Shady Grove campus in Montgomery County.

And the massive growth during the last decade of the University of Maryland University College shows the potential for not only graduating more people with on-line degrees but also using technology to expand the capacity and quality of traditional universities. On-line learning isn't the answer for every student or every subject, but in some circumstances, it can provide even better education than traditional methods. System Chancellor William E. Kirwan says that at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, for example, half of the students in traditional sections of Chemistry 101 got a D or F. But those in sections that included more high-tech teaching methods, 70 percent got a C or better. In that case, technology made education more efficient and more effective.

The chief obstacle in increasing the number of students graduating with science, technology, engineering and math (disciplines known collectively as STEM) is not a lack of interest. It's that many — like those Chem 101 students at UMES — have difficulty in introductory courses and drop out. In addition to redesigning those courses to provide more interactive learning, the university system will also benefit from the development of a longitudinal data system that will help the state track students from kindergarten through the work force. The database which has been in the works for some time but is now part of Maryland's Race to the Top application, will help the state figure out what works in terms of curriculum and instructional practices and should reduce the number of students who show up in college (or on the job) unprepared.

Between Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland, the National Institutes of Health and various other government labs, Maryland is already a powerhouse when it comes to research, but it hasn't spawned the equivalent of a Silicon Valley. In order for the state's investments in education to pay economic dividends, Maryland needs to do better at translating that research into start-up businesses, and nurturing those businesses so they survive and thrive. The university system can do more to help, but much of that task lies beyond its purview.

That's why it's important not only that the university system follow through on this plan but that the governor and the legislature take it as a starting point for developing a broader vision for economic development in Maryland. While our political leaders get fixated on the question of whether our tax rates and regulations make us competitive with Virginia and Pennsylvania, the question we need to be asking is whether we have an economic and work force development strategy that will make us competitive with India and China (not to mention Germany and Japan). The university system can't answer that question by itself, but its plan points us in the right direction.

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