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Rethink state's commitment to higher ed from the top down

A focus on outcomes and teaching staff, instead of attendance and administration, is needed.

A few months ago David Brooks, New York Times commentator, wrote a column titled "The Biggest Issue."

The biggest issue facing the United States, he wrote, was not the deficit, the economy, or the war in Afghanistan. The biggest issue was the slow but steady deterioration of America's system of higher education.

When all is stripped away, the United States has two fundamental competitive advantages in the global economy: the vitality of our world-leading university system, and the flexibility and availability of capital that drives entrepreneurial innovation.

Several recent studies have documented the problems of the U.S. university system, most significantly dramatically increasing costs and the declining proportion of students who actually graduate.

Nationally, for public universities, only slightly more than 50 percent graduate after six or more years.

In Maine, the graduation statistics are similar.

However, in Maine the problems with our higher education system are even more acute than nationally, as the recently released report "Reinventing Maine Government" from Envision Maine documents very well.

The report reinforces several well-known facts about our university system, namely that it is fragmented and inefficient.

The state has 17 campuses, 10 from the University of Maine System's seven colleges and seven from the state's Community College System.

As the report suggests, the best evidence of Maine's inability to adapt to a changing world is the funding formula that allocates money to the seven colleges of the university system.

It is a significant disadvantage to the University of Southern Maine, for example, where much of the growth over the past 40 years has occurred.

What struck me about Envision Maine's report, though, was the documentation of how Maine is underinvesting in this critical resource for Maine's future economic competitiveness.

Maine's spending per full-time equivalent student is 14 percent lower than the national average.

Rather shockingly, over the period from 1980-2005, Maine ranked 44th among states in support for higher education.

This is a sorry performance from a state that has aspired to be called "The Learning State" and is one of the top 10 states in the nation in supporting K-12 education. Moreover, we spend more higher education dollars on non-institutional, i.e. non-teaching, areas than 48 other states.

For every dollar of instructional payroll in Maine, $1.75 goes to non-instructional payroll.

In comparable rural states, the instructional and non-instructional payrolls are about equal. In other words, Maine has way too many administrative support personnel in our system.

Chronic underinvesting, compounded by the inefficiencies built into our "large state," 17-campus approach, lead to just one thing: declining quality.

At a time when students can vote with their feet about where they want to go to college, many are bypassing the university system. I know from my days on the school board in Cumberland-North Yarmouth that the public university of choice for good Maine students is no longer UMaine at Orono. Now it seems to be the University of Vermont.

So we have a heck of a problem here. We are unlikely to be successful in generating a strong Maine economy without a strong university system. We surely need to fund our system to a higher standard than 44th in the country.

We need to be smarter about how we invest the money in the current system. We also are facing a significant budget deficit.

For the near term, the best higher education can hope for is that its funding is not cut significantly.

"Reinventing Maine Government" offers a few (I would say too few) recommendations. Most intriguing is the recommendation to provide future funding directly to students in the form of vouchers and then let the marketplace decide which campuses are best serving students' needs.

The idea behind this is sound - over time, it would become clear which campuses could not be sustained. Moreover, the campuses that survived would likely be higher quality and better focused.

Another idea that should be considered is to hold each campus accountable for key outcomes such as graduation rates, with increased funding only available if such outcomes improve.

Short of Bill and Melinda Gates deciding to move their charitable foundation to Maine, our options are limited and improved results likely a ways away. Yet, we must start.

The university system has taken a good first step with its plan for greater focus and reduced cost.

This should be followed by a more comprehensive strategic plan for the entire system of higher education, including the Community College System and adult education.

The state needs a blueprint that will significantly improve Maine's results in this critical arena. Focus, stable funding and good leadership will make a difference.