Maine public higher education must be reconsidered

Posted March 02, 2009, at 6:29 p.m.

For Maine to have a strong future, few issues are more urgent than greater participation of our residents in higher education. Our state has worked hard to make college available. For years, governors and legislatures have promoted higher education, providing community colleges, community-based universities, a maritime academy, and a strong and growing research university. All play important roles.

Yet we know that something about higher education in Maine is not right. Chancellor Richard Pattenaude has placed one of our leading residents, David Flanagan, in charge of a task force to look at the university system. All aspects of public higher education, not just the universities, need to be reconsidered. We are spending more money than we can afford, and getting less than ideal results. We need to know why, and we need to make changes.

Many have suggested that, although we need more Mainers to take advantage of college, we present them with too many options and too much duplication. It may come as a surprise, but we need to be more like California, which has 112 public community colleges and 32 large universities.

Why should we even consider making Maine (population about 1.3 million) more like California (population about 36 million)? Because when it comes to higher education, California is much more frugal and effective than Maine.

Were it a separate country, California would have the eighth-largest economy in the world. It is the home of some of the world’s greatest research universities and a system of higher education that is famous for its quality and affordability. It has Silicon Valley and many other centers of innovation and productivity.

California has one public college or university for every 250,000 inhabitants. Maine, with seven universities, seven community colleges, and a maritime academy, has one public college or university for every 87,000 inhabitants. California would have to triple its number of public colleges and universities, to almost 450, to keep pace with Maine’s investment.

Because they are so small in enrollment but large in the number of programs offered, Maine’s colleges and universities are far more expensive to operate than California’s, on a per-student basis. The total University of Maine System enrollment is just slightly higher than that of just one average-size California university. Similarly, the total for all of Maine’s community colleges equals roughly the average size of just one of its California counterparts. This disparity makes Maine colleges far more costly.

If we intend to provide good, affordable higher education, we cannot allow the present configuration.

These facts about Maine become even more painful when we consider that in many cases two or even three of our 15 institutions or their branches are in close proximity to one another (or even two others). Greater Bangor has three (The University of Maine, Eastern Maine Community College, and the University of Maine at Augusta — Bangor); Portland at least two, Presque Isle two, Lewiston-Auburn three (University of Southern Maine and UMA branches as mirror images in the same building, plus Central Maine Community College), Washington County two, and so forth. One needn’t list all of the examples of this complicated and expensive array of sites to recognize that we are trying to do too much, too inefficiently, in too many places.

Although often duplicative, each campus plays a significant enough role in its region to have attracted a loyal clientele, ready to defend it against change. Time after time, Maine legislators rally to protect an institution that seems to be threatened. This is a natural response, even though nobody would ever design a system of higher education like the one that has evolved here. Still, we can reverse the overinvestment in educational facilities without abandoning access to higher education in Maine’s communities.

Although the scale differs greatly, our political circumstances resemble those faced by the U.S. Department of Defense, which over several centuries had created an enormous number of military bases around the world. Through time, some of these bases had become redundant or obsolete, but local politics always compelled politicians to protect their facilities.

The solution was the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. In a process now applied once each decade, a team of independent citizen experts studies the entire system of DoD bases and recommends changes, including closings. A single final recommendation goes to Congress, where the only option is a yes-or-no vote. The process is still painful, but it works.

Perhaps a similar approach could be taken here in Maine. With appropriate enabling legislation, a panel of independent experts (some from out of state) with distinguished backgrounds in public policy, higher education, economic development, and so forth, could conduct a thorough analysis of Maine’s public higher education. The group then would recommend changes to strengthen our entire educational system. The package would be open to review and comment by all who wish to participate, and then a final comprehensive recommendation would go to the legislature for a yes-or-no vote.

Maine is not California. But the comparison does offer us insights about how to invest wisely in higher education and get more opportunity with less cost.

Is now the time to learn that lesson?

George L. Jacobson is a biology professor and former director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

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