Laslo Boyd: The Electoral Stakes for Higher Education

Posted by on in Blog
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Hits: 5780
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print
  • Report this post

By: Laslo Boyd 

Maryland through public policy decisions made by governors and members of the General Assembly has invested in and strongly supported its system of public higher education.  The pay-offs have been significant.   Those choices have allowed Maryland to compete in the global economy, to attract talented people who will foster future economic development, and supported the state in being one of the most prosperous in the nation.

As Martin O’Malley nears the end of his two terms, his record as a “Higher Education Governor” has to be seen as one of his most important accomplishments.  Despite a catastrophic national economic downturn five years ago, O’Malley continued to invest in higher education.  Maryland avoided the dramatic cuts that characterized many states’ approach and the resultant steep increases in tuition.   Public colleges and universities, students, and the state have all benefitted from his far-sighted leadership on this issue.

That reality makes the almost total absence of any reference to higher education by the three Democratic candidates for governor puzzling.  Anthony Brown’s web site has only a passing mention of universities in his Business Compact section.  He does propose new efforts under the heading “Career and Technical Education,” but doesn’t relate them to higher education.  Doug Gansler and Heather Mizeur don’t have anything at all to say about higher education on their web sites.

One could argue that campaigns are about fixing problems and about proposing bold new initiatives.  Witness the extensive focus on Pre-K education and on increasing the minimum wage.  On the other hand, you can as easily suggest that a candidate for governor would want to emphasize the importance of building on current strengths.   Maybe the three of them just take the quality of public higher education for granted, but being a public advocate is one of the important roles of a governor.

I talked recently to a number of higher education leaders and asked them what they hoped for from the next governor.   All three cited their appreciation for the support that the Governor and General Assembly had provided and hoped that the momentum of the O’Malley Administration would be maintained.

Brit Kirwan, the University System of Maryland Chancellor, while delighted with the last eight years of support, expressed his concern about the future.  “The progress we have made as a system and a state could stall without an enlightened governor who understands that quality higher education is an indispensable resource for a successful economy and high quality of life.”

Make no mistake, support in the budget is essential.  While public universities are not nearly as “public” as they once were — the percentage of their budgets that comes from state appropriations is closer to 20% than to 50% -- state dollars are still the basis for “affordable” tuition.  Avoiding the huge debt burdens that some students carry with them after graduation is an important public good and a genuine economic stimulus result. 

Universities provide much of the highly skilled workforce that is one of the keys to Maryland’s economy.  Having access to quality, affordable higher education provides an entry into the economy for individuals who otherwise would be totally left out.

Too often, people throw around the term “workforce” without discussing the various specific needs of the Maryland economy.  To cite a few, health care will remain a significant part of the state economy and requires skilled employees in a number of fields.  Various technology areas, whether information technology, biotechnology, or cyber-security, are all important fields supported by the state’s universities.

Jay Perman, President of the University of Maryland Baltimore, praised the support from the state and observed that he would not want to be president of a public higher education institution in any place other than Maryland. As to the future, he hopes that the next governor is sensitive to the cost of higher education and the debt burden on students.  Perman would like to see, as an example of a policy initiative, the state do more with the idea of loan forgiveness in exchange for service after graduation.

Budget support means more though.  Public research universities are able to leverage state dollars in dramatic ways.  For example, at the University of Maryland Baltimore, the $1 billion budget builds upon a state investment of $200 million.   Research activities bring money into the state, attract talented scholars, and sometimes lead to commercialization and new businesses.

All of the university officials I talked with also mentioned the importance of focusing on the pipeline to higher education.  The goals of the Common Core, regardless of one’s position on the specifics, include students being better prepared when they start at a university, significantly reducing the cost of remedial education, and increasing the numbers of students who would benefit from higher education.

There’s a lot that the candidates for governor could be talking about with respect to their goals and intentions for higher education.  For example, the General Assembly’s presiding officers, Mike Miller and Mike Busch, have introduced a package of bills intended to support the state’s research universities through a mix of tax credits and spending initiatives.   The Miller/Busch program would have made a great campaign position paper for someone.

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski talked, as the others did, about the importance of university-industry partnerships, investing in research and working to overcome the achievement gap generally associated with poor and minority students.   Hrabowski stressed the importance of the next governor being able to speak with enthusiasm and confidence about higher education issues.

That’s the point that is totally missing as of now in the gubernatorial campaign.  Having a governor as a supporter of higher education is not a sure thing.  Think back to Bob Ehrlich’s four years as governor when tuition at public universities increased by 40% to partially offset state budget cuts.  The governor was not out visiting biotech parks, as Jay Perman told me Martin O’Malley has done on frequent occasions.

Does silence imply agreement by the candidates with O’Malley’s approach?  That shouldn’t instill confidence in anyone. Being a public advocate and supporter of higher education on the campaign trail is not only a smart policy choice, but is good politics.

Rate this blog entry:
Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.