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Toward A New Beginning

“We will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal:  by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

— President Barack Obama, Feb. 24, 2009


“I challenge state, college and university leaders to put affordability front and center as they chart a path forward. I challenge them to follow the example of the University [System] of Maryland, where they’re streamlining administrative costs, cutting energy costs, using faculty more effectively, making it possible for them to freeze tuition for students and for families.”

— President Obama, April 24, 2009


With these two statements, President Obama articulated two key challenges that the higher-education community faces: completion and affordability. The global recession has highlighted the vital nature of these concerns. It’s universally accepted that the U.S. must improve educational attainment if it wants to rank among the world’s leaders in creativity and innovation in the knowledge economy. At the same time, the recession has also underscored the clear correlation that exists between the two. For many, the cost of pursuing a college degree can short-circuit their progress toward that goal.

These are issues the University System of Maryland (USM) has embraced as priorities. Five years ago, as an earlier economic downturn resulted in a sharp decline in state support for USM, our Board of Regents launched the Effectiveness and Efficiency (E&E) initiative. E&E involved a systematic re-examination and re-engineering of both our administrative functions and academic processes to reduce costs, enhance access, protect quality and raise students’ completion rates.

This effort has removed nearly $100 million in direct costs from our budget, while experiencing significant additional savings through cost avoidance. In return, the state has invested new funds in USM to expand capacity and reduce the gap in success rates for low-income and underrepresented minority students. USM’s four-year and six-year graduation rates are well above national averages for public universities, and time-to-degree across the system is at its best level ever, averaging less than four and a half years.

Since the first full year under E&E, enrollment at USM institutions has increased by 15,000 students. During this same four-year period, tuition for in-state, undergraduate students has remained constant.

Although there is no universal approach that would be effective for systems and campuses nationwide, our actions have broader applications and have been recognized in many national publications as a model, singled out as a “success story” by the U.S. Department of Education, and — as noted above — endorsed by President Obama.

While actions to enhance access and affordability are vital, so are steps to bolster the completion rates of students. Here again, however, affordability plays a critical role. According to the education department, 400,000 qualified high-school graduates put off attending college each year because of cost. In addition, about one in five college students end up dropping out, primarily because of financial stress. And the average college graduate faces nearly $21,000 of debt upon graduation.

We need to attack the affordability issue through financial aid policies, grant practices, student loan regulations and innovative approaches.

First, we must reverse the recent trend of favoring merit-based aid at the expense of financial aid based on need. I am all for recognizing merit, but the primary recipients of financial aid must be students who would otherwise not be able to afford college. In Maryland, we have a systemwide goal of having the lowest-income students graduate with 25 percent less debt than the institutional average.

Second, our approach to student loans should mirror the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. We need to reduce the excessive subsidies provided to student loan companies and use those billions of dollars to make college more affordable and accessible for low- and middle-income families, led by an additional increase in Pell Grant funding.

Finally, creative incentives are called for, such as providing campuses with additional funding as low-income and first-generation students progress toward a degree. Such incentives could be done at the system, state or federal levels.

Higher education faces myriad challenges if our nation is to realize the ambitious goals set by President Obama. But, we must not let these challenges deter us because our nation’s future leadership in the world depends on our leadership in education. Eliminating the “achievement gaps” based on income, race and ethnicity; improving “college readiness” in middle- and high-school students; and addressing changing demographics that are putting more first-generation college students on the path to higher education will not be easy.  But if we focus on strengthening our partnerships with the K-12 sector, providing affordable access to our institutions, and ensuring the necessary academic support is in place to improve completion rates for all students, we can get this job done. For sure, nothing is more worthy of our time and attention or important for our nation’s future well being.  

— William “Brit” Kirwan is chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

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