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University campus cuts should serve as a community wake-up call

July 13, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

You want to believe people close to the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown campus when they say remain calm, all is well. Enrollment will pick up, funding will come through and everything will be fine.

But it feels shaky right at the moment.

First the General Assembly tried to raid Hagerstown's funding under the theory that the school is underused. Then earlier this month, the University system itself gave the legislative effort some degree of legitimacy by blaming a round of staff cuts on the lack of students.

Businesses or institutions that are faced with challenges have two options: They can cut or they can invest. If they have confidence in the soundness of their model they invest; if they have doubts, they cut.

If enrollment is stagnant and needs a jump-start, might the system not have been better served by offering, say, a couple dozen $5,000 scholarships for students who would agree to come to the Hagerstown campus?

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Obviously, this would require a degree of common sense for which higher education is not particularly known. And the state itself doesn't help, sending millions of dollars to private institutions, while failing to spend relative pennies to juice our own public schools.

If the university system is concerned about slow student growth, it might consider its own academic growth. In four years, it has expanded from 12 to 19 programs (the comparably structured Universities of Shady Grove offer 60). That's reasonable for a young institution, but it's not exactly setting the world on fire. Just the same as growth in student enrollment is itself slow but steady.

When Frostburg State closed its Frederick branch and put all its chips on Hagerstown, it was hoped that Frederick students would come here, and that within a few years Hagerstown enrollment would stand where FSU's Hagerstown and Frederick combined enrollment (about 500 students) stood. That didn't happen.

The campus opened in 2005 with 356 students, and had increased only to 380 by this spring. Obviously, distance matters, and Frederick students were disinclined to head west. (Here, the decision to place the school downtown rather than on the interstate may have cost a handful of enrollments.)

But Interstate 70 is a two-way street, and the cost of gas may actually help keep local people here, instead of traveling to Shepherd or Hood. Even with the price of gas at pre-2008 levels, Frederick residents weren't coming here, so it seems that we could expect to be in for a net gain.

That's if the word gets out and if the local school is offering relevant course matter.

There's a natural inclination to expect that things will always remain the way that they are today. Today there is a need for teachers and nurses, so that's where the classroom emphasis is. But the next great boom in this country will be in the field of cheap, alternative energy, which will likely explode the way tech exploded in the 1990s. Five years from now, every smart kid coming out of high school will want to get into energy, the way a decade ago every smart kid wanted to get into computers. Education should anticipate this.

Ten years ago, the hot thing was to get an MBA. Now, with business suffering an economic and moral meltdown nationwide, how bright can that future be? Education should anticipate that, too.

It should also anticipate that a net narrowly cast will catch a limited number of fish. Business, education and medicine is a reasonable base. But what of someone who wants to study history, political science or liberal arts? USM-H is a barren wasteland for those disciplines, just as it is for those seeking doctorates.

Naturally, schools follow the dollar, so there's a disinclination to offer programs that will attract only a few students. But, when a popular, lucrative program is in one school's possession, there is also a disinclination to allow other schools to come in and encroach on its own turf.

Five schools under one roof may sound like a good idea, because they have a broad range of programs - at their home campuses. There, the popular classes can support those that are less well-attended. But that doesn't happen here; at least it hasn't yet.

So what we wind up with is limited offerings that do not interest a significant chunk of the college population. That may not be bad if that's what the university system wants Hagerstown to be - a limited school focusing on a limited disciplines. But it can't at the same time expect enrollment to skyrocket and cut funding every time it doesn't. That has the makings for a downward spiral if ever there was.

In my experience, one school is a disorganized enough enterprise on its own. But multiple schools, multiple presidents, multiple personalities, umbrella organizations, at-odds funding sources and competition in and outside the county? Forget it.

For the campus to succeed, this is one democracy that is crying out for a dictator.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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