June 20, 2018
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Remaking higher education

Efforts within Maine’s higher education systems to increase efficiency are necessary and timely. Done in isolation, however, such work may reduce costs, but won’t address a more fundamental problem — Maine does not have the educated work force it needs to compete in the global economy.

That was the message from Bangor native and former associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Eliot Cutler who spoke at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine recently.

“We in Maine have stuck to a fragmented model that virtually guarantees duplication of effort, misallocation of resources and ultimately poorer performance,” said Mr. Cutler, who manages the Beijing office of the international law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Much of the information he shared had long been known: Maine is old and white and has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs; too few of its high school graduates go to college and of those who do, too many go out of state; and the state devotes far too few resources to research and development.

Add to this that Maine has no entity in charge of overseeing and coordinating higher education. As a result, a state with only 1.3 million people has a university system with seven campuses, a law school, 10 outreach centers and 75 interactive learning sites and a community college with seven campuses and eight off-campus centers. Often the university and community college facilities are in close proximity.

While higher education facilities have been proliferating, the funding for them has not, with state appropriations for full-time college students falling by more than a third in the past 20 years.

“We are a generous people in Maine … We want to ensure all of Maine’s youth have access to affordable, high quality tertiary education,” Mr. Cutler said. “But I fear that insofar as affordability and accessibility are concerned, we may be paying more attention to the veneer than the substance.”

To remedy this, Mr. Cutler calls on the governor to appoint a commission on higher education with the charge of re-examining the structure of the state’s higher education system. He seriously questions the need for separate oversight for the university and community college systems and asks how many campuses Maine can afford while still delivering high quality education.

A plan from University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude for a top-to-bottom review of the system’s operations and offerings, with a goal of saving nearly $43 million over four years, is a good step in this direction. However, reviewing and, perhaps, reforming the university system is only a start. And, even here the work may be short circuited by passage of legislation enshrining in state law the location of the system’s seven campuses, which came in response to a proposal to merge the administration of several campuses.

This comes to Mr. Cutler’s most important, and most likely to be ignored, suggestion: The recommendations of the governor’s commission must be either accepted or rejected in their entirety by the Legislature to avoid changes to protect what Mr. Cutler calls “sacred cows.”

With increasing costs and depressed revenues, Maine can’t have sacred cows and the higher education system it needs.

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