THE MAINE DEBATE

Can Maine’s college system be streamlined?

Students walk across the University of Maine Mall in Orono between classes in April.
Students walk across the University of Maine Mall in Orono between classes in April.
Posted Aug. 29, 2011, at 4:47 p.m.

This week, some 32,000 students arrive at state college and university campuses to begin or further their education. Another 18,000 students begin classes at the state’s community colleges.

These 50,000 young men and women — and increasingly, older men and women — are investing in their future, yet all Mainers will benefit from their work and sacrifice. That they are doing so in a difficult economy is even more impressive, though it could be inferred that many know it would be better to get more education than try to beat the odds of getting a good job.

Maine has done much right in making post-secondary education accessible and affordable. But the question for this week’s Maine Debate focuses on what more can be done to make the publicly funded systems efficient and effective.

Here is one vision, perhaps idealized, of what the state’s colleges and universities might look like; let us know what you think, or offer an alternative vision, by commenting here at the Opinion page at bangordailynews.com:

At the top, one single office with a chancellor would serve as administrator for the universities, colleges and community colleges. It would purchase supplies, oversee hiring including developing standard contracts and, most important, develop and administer a master budget. The two largest universities, the flagship institution in Orono and the University of Southern Maine in Portland and Gorham, would have their own administrations, which report to the system office, but those administrations would be smaller and less autonomous than they are today.

The college campuses would be under the oversight of the two universities — Fort Kent, Presque Isle and Machias under UMaine; Augusta and Farmington under USM. They would have administrations, but again, smaller and less autonomous than today.

The community college system would report to the system office.

Each entity — the universities, the colleges and the community colleges — would have boards of advisors, made up of community members and alumni, to guide site-specific management. But the big issues — budgets, resource allocation, staffing, curriculum coordination, research, expansion — would come under the board of trustees that oversees the system.

Even more important than the way the state’s post-secondary education system looks from the top down is the way it would look to the education consumer.

On-ramps at the community colleges, colleges and universities should be visible and each should have clear, though different standards for admission. Merging from the community colleges to the university colleges or the universities also should be seamless.

Yes, there is reason to conclude that a B+ in Sociology 101 at the community college may not represent the same achievement as a B+ in the same course at UMaine. But students who finish a program at a community college have bucked significant odds; they should be rewarded with automatic admission to a state college or university. Most, if not all, credits should be easily transferred to the college and university.

Tuition also should reflect the academic value of each “lane” in this higher-ed highway; community college costs should be significantly lower than those of the colleges and universities. At the same time, the system must find a way to put a higher perceived value on the college and university degrees.

This is a vision of a state post-secondary education system that is both smaller and bigger; smaller in that its management structure is streamlined and less costly, and bigger in that it is understood as one cohesive, comprehensive system.

What do you think? Join us online for a discussion, 10 a.m.-noon on Tuesday.

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