EDITORIALS

Higher Education Failure

Posted April 13, 2011, at 10:13 p.m.

It is past time to consider substantial changes to the state’s higher education systems and structure to ensure they better fit with the state’s needs and economic resources.

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 system 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 all the state’s higher education and the risk of duplication and inefficiency is high.

Reducing unnecessary administrative duplication — by replacing the university chancellor’s office with a less costly entity that coordinates all the state’s higher education work, for example — would ensure that more money goes toward classrooms and research labs, where it is sorely needed and can make a real difference in the state’s economic prospects.

While Gov. Paul LePage has yet to propose major changes for higher education, he outlined his thinking during a visit to Presque Isle earlier this year. He noted that enrollment at the state’s universities is dropping while tuition is rising — not a sustainable path. He suggested that the campuses do more to attract out-of-state students, who pay more.

He also rightly emphasized the need for more emphasis on vocational education.

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, the University of Maine, the state’s flagship campus, 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.

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