College Course Review

Posted Jan. 28, 2011, at 4:52 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 6:27 p.m.

Maine has a new governor, and the University of Maine will soon have a new president. These changes allow — and economic realities demand — a hard look at the state’s vast, but often not well-coordinated, higher education infrastructure. Such work should enhance, not undermine, the state’s flagship educational and research campus, the University of Maine.

While it is too early to know what Gov. Paul LePage intends with regard to higher education, some trends are clear.

One is that the state has more higher education infrastructure than it can afford.

A state with only 1.3 million people, Maine 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, sometimes even in the same town.

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.

Add to this that Maine has no entity in charge of overseeing and coordinating higher education and the risk of duplication and inefficiency is high.

This has left campuses within the University of Maine System to fight among themselves for precious resources, while also trying to outmaneuver the community colleges and Maine Maritime Academy.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Maine residents with college degrees — a prerequisite for many jobs these days — has stagnated.

A new approach is needed.

There are many models that could be followed. The universities and community colleges could be merged into one system. As part of this system, then-candidate for governor Bill Beardsley’s suggestion that no community have more than one publicly financed college campus would be a good guiding principle.

Like the University of Minnesota, UM might best remain a stand-alone entity outside the system. Like the University of Vermont, it could remain independent while charging significantly higher tuition (which would require more generous financial aid) than other campuses to highlight its status.

Or the systems could remain separate, but be overseen by a strong coordinating board, as is done in many other states.

What can’t be maintained is the status quo.

Kentucky, a rural state with some of the same socioeconomic challenges, provides a good blueprint for guiding reform work. Decisions made by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education (we don’t suggest emulating the name) are guided by five questions:

1. Are more residents ready for postsecondary education?

2. Is this education affordable to residents?

3. Do more residents have certificates and degrees?

4. Are college graduates prepared for work and life?

5. Are the state’s communities and people benefiting?

These questions should be answered before big decisions — such as adding or cutting programs, raising tuition and dividing up resources among schools — are made in Maine.

Such queries have special relevance to the University of Maine, which as the state’s land-grant campus, has the largest responsibility for fostering the state’s new industries and ensuring a work force is ready to staff them.

They will also help a new campus leader focus on how, at a time when the state must continue to trim its budget, he will ensure that the university preserves and enhances its role.

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