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Flanagan Report helpful, but not enough for university needs
Without addressing the impact of community colleges and the number of campuses, little will happen.

You have to give Bill Gates credit. He is a billionaire who wants his legacy to be that he helped transform world health and U.S. education.

With his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he has resources that rival those of most developed countries – and he is making a mark.

Last week, Gates gave the keynote address at the National Council of State Legislatures Summit in Philadelphia. He made a passionate plea for state legislators to use their Obama stimulus funds, some $5 billion in all, for longer-term reform efforts.

Gates led off by noting: "We've been in an economic crisis for a year or so, but we have been in an education crisis for decades. As a country our performance at every level – primary and secondary school achievement, high school graduation, college entry, college completion – is dropping against the rest of the world.

"But this performance is not a fair measure of our country's energy, effort or intelligence. It's a reflection of weak systems run by old beliefs and bad habits."

"Weak systems run by old beliefs and bad habits." That phrase really resonated with me, because it is so reflective of where we are with education both nationally and right here in Maine.

We have just heard the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon Task Force on the state of our university system, chaired by former Central Maine Power CEO and system trustee David Flanagan.

Flanagan's group concluded that the University of Maine System is high-cost, unfocused and mediocre. In fact, the words "weak systems run by old beliefs and bad habits" could almost have been lifted from Flanagan's report.

The Press Herald went so far in an editorial as to compare the system's situation to that of General Motors. The only good news in that comparison was that UMS is too big and too important to let fail.

The Flanagan Commission's report made several significant recommendations to address cost issues by consolidating central services and narrowing the mission of each of the seven separate universities. All of these are helpful.

However, the commission was specifically forbidden in its charter from addressing the fundamental cost question – does Maine need or can we afford seven separate university campuses and seven separate community college campuses?

A little-discussed fact is that the growth of the Community College System since its inception in the King administration has taken a big chunk out of the UMS student base, greatly exacerbating the system's financial woes.

The theory was that the Community College System would provide a two-year, lower cost alternative for that proportion of college-bound students not quite ready for the "big time."

This theory failed to account for the significance of the much lower cost of the community colleges in attracting more of the university system base than expected. In addition, it has been much more difficult to transfer credits to the university system than forecast. Often community college students find that they will have to take at least three years at the university system in addition to two years at a community college, adding even more cost.

Moreover, the completion rates at most campuses of the university system are below 50 percent. In practice, UMS economics depend heavily on the number of students there in years one and two because these years tend to have many more students.

Dropouts leave the system with fewer students in years three and four. Thus, an unintended effect of the Community College System approach has been to drain UMS campuses of their best revenue-generating assets, freshmen and sophomores.

Does this sound like a well-intended mess? It is. "Weak systems run by old beliefs and bad habits."

The Flanagan Commission Report's recommendations would help, but they are not likely to be a cure for the chronic underfunding of one of our state's most important assets, our higher education system.

Until state leaders are willing to adopt a reasonable approach to combining and consolidating the 14 UMS and community college campuses, we will continue to have, as the Flanagan Commission states, high costs and mediocre results.

Our students deserve better. A good question to ask of the seeming legions of candidates who have announced for governor in the 2010 election is "What is your plan for rationalizing the structure of higher education in Maine and adequately supporting it with funding?"

If the answer doesn't involve something stronger than the Flanagan Commission's recommendations, beware.