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FSU president: Why USM-H is so valuable

March 24, 2009|By JONATHAN GIBRALTER

As lawmakers debate budgets and wait for answers about the state's future revenues, I would like to take a few moments to sing the praises of the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.

While I have been in Western Maryland for just under three years, I have a pretty good idea of the impact of the USM-H on downtown Hagerstown. The state's investment of more than $15 million did more than renovate two vacant, deteriorating buildings into a state-of-the-art educational facility. It transformed and revitalized a moribund downtown area.

But while laudable, transforming downtown is not what USM-H is about. Education is what it is all about: Access to public, affordable higher education that was missing or severely limited in the Washington and Frederick County's region of the state for so long. The Universities at Shady Grove, the other USM regional higher education center, is an hour away from Hagerstown - without traffic. Frostburg is a drive of nearly 90 minutes. Other regional colleges and universities - Shepherd, Hood, Wilson, Shippensburg, Mount St. Mary's (none of these in Washington County) - are only available at private or out-of-state rates, out of reach for too many people.

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USM-H wouldn't exist at all without the strong support of the local community, especially a core group of lawmakers and business leaders who recognized how the lack of access to affordable higher education was harming the economic and entrepreneurial vitality of the region. As a handful of major industries declined as the primary employers, education was recognized as the key to the next phase of the growth of the regional economy. Yet local students who completed their first two years of community college were being forced to decide between staying home or enhancing their education.

Frostburg State University began offering educational opportunities in Washington County in the 1970s, with graduate business courses held in a local high school. Those opportunities were expanded in 1988 when the FSU Hagerstown Center opened downtown, adding graduate education and undergraduate accounting, business, justice studies and sociology programs. However, as one of the smaller institutions in the USM, FSU's ability to offer a broader selection of programs was limited. It made sense to tap the considerable programmatic resources of other USM institutions to meet the needs of this part of the state.

Five USM institutions now present programs at USM-H since it opened in the spring semester of 2005, just four years ago, offering a total of 19 degree programs and a number of graduate certificates. Programs are offered based on the state, region and nation's immediate need for an educated workforce, but also based on the pool of potential students, enough to financially justify the human and other resources needed. USM institutions meet rigorous accrediting standards, and any program offered at satellite locations must meet those same standards.

More programs are on the way, most notably an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the University of Maryland College Park. (Doctoral degrees are increasingly required among school principals.) Since USM-H opened, as programs have been added, enrollment has increased.

There appears to be some effort to reopen the argument of many years ago about the location of USM-H, but that ship has sailed. The state has a major investment in this location, not just in the renovation of the building, but in the creation and equipping of a space that is uniquely designed for its current purpose - education. USM-H contains state-of-the-art classrooms that are the envy of many an institution. The cost of relocating anywhere else would be prohibitive and wasteful.

Frostburg's commitment to providing educational opportunity for all of Western Maryland will continue, and we plan to continue to work hand-in-hand with USM-H to deliver those opportunities.

Jonathan C. Gibralter is president of Frostburg State University

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