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Task force hears about USM-H's benefits

August 11, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- The addition of the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown to the city's downtown coincided with an increase in local development, boosted the area's educated work force and contributed to the revitalization of the downtown area, Karen Giffin, Hagerstown's Community Affairs director, said Tuesday.

Those benefits to the surrounding community are among the factors that have been examined this summer by a task force that is studying the viability of USM-H, task force members said.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington, said he hoped data on the educational center's importance to economic development would make it easier to convince other state legislators to fund USM-H in the future.

"I guess the old cliché is, 'You have to spend money to make money,'" Myers said.

The USM-H task force was suggested by Myers during a debate over funding for USM-H in the last legislative session. A requirement for it was written into the state's fiscal year 2010 budget.

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The task force was originally scheduled to meet three times, but after its third meeting, which occurred on Aug. 4, members decided to schedule one or two more, USM-H spokeswoman Erin Harman said.

At the Aug. 4 meeting, the task force heard from city officials, leaders of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, representatives of the Washington County Health System and Brien J. Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, members said.

Giffin said the city's presentation focused on how the announcement and development of USM-H contributed to economic development in the center of the city.

Data from the city's planning department shows that from 1990 to 1999, private and public investment in downtown Hagerstown totaled about $6.2 million, while from 2000 to 2009, it totaled about $59.8 million, Giffin said.

Giffin said the appeal of USM-H to prospective businesses was threefold. The university contributes to downtown foot traffic, supplies an educated work force and offers a business testing center, she said.

The task force also heard from local leaders about ways the community has embraced and helped support USM-H.

Greater Hagerstown Committee Executive Director Art Callaham said the General Assembly should feel better about contributing funding to USM-H, given the investments the local community has made in it.

"That's my biggest emphasis, is we've got skin in the game, and I'm talking money," Callaham said Tuesday. "We haven't just sat back and let the state 'fund' this operation up here."

The city, county and business community were active in establishing the park next to the USM-H building, and a Greater Hagerstown Committee subcommittee has raised more than $212,000 in scholarship funding for USM-H students, which was matched dollar for dollar by a local foundation, according to Callaham and a report by Greater Hagerstown Committee member Mary Baykan.

The county's top two employers, the Washington County Health System and Washington County Public Schools, have worked closely with USM-H to suggest programs that meet their work-force needs, and both provide tuition reimbursement to employees who attend the institution, Callaham said.

The other main theme to come out of the task force's meetings so far has been that USM-H is on the road to becoming more self-sufficient, Myers said.

C. David Warner, executive director of USM-H, said the center's cost per full-time-equivalent student, which was around $12,000 when the center opened in 2005, dropped to $7,667 by last fiscal year. The center's business plan calls for that number to drop to $5,500 by 2012, Warner said.

That cost is dropping constantly because the center's enrollment is growing each year, while its budget has stayed the same or dropped, Warner said.

"The idea that there was a problem with the cost per full-time equivalent is a myth that grew out of the budget battles in Annapolis," Warner said.

The center's full-time equivalent student count, which represents the number of full credit-hour loads an institution provides over a fiscal year, grew from 236 in fiscal year 2008 to 247 in fiscal year 2009, Warner said. The system projects USM-H will have 264 full-time-equivalent students this fiscal year, he said.

The institution's highest enrollment head count to date was 455 students in the fall 2008 semester, Warner said.

Warner said one factor that limited enrollment in the past was finding students who had completed the prerequisites for the programs offered at USM-H. Since then, Hagerstown Community College has adjusted its course offerings, he said.

"We've ironed a lot of that out, so the transfer now is pretty seamless," he said.

Warner said the campus keeps data on requests for information about its programs and has seen interest increasing.

"I'm not worried about enrollment or head count at all," he said.

Program offerings are also growing at USM-H, Warner said.

USM-H opened in January 2005 with two participating colleges and 12 programs, and now has six colleges and 21 programs, he said. Two new programs are close to being signed and should be announced soon, and others are in the negotiation stage, he said.

The next USM-H task force meeting will be scheduled for late August, Harman said.

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