Center Maryland: College presidents cite student preparedness, education cost as key challenges

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on October 10.

By Donald C. Fry

What’s on the minds of higher education leaders in Maryland these days?  For starters, student preparedness.

The degree to which graduates of Maryland’s public high schools are prepared for college generates both positive and negative outcomes, according to University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan. Maryland’s K-12 system has evolved into a “bi-modal” system, he told members of the Greater Baltimore Committee this week.

On the one hand, it produces “phenomenal” high school graduates who enter college with up to 30 advanced placement credits. But Maryland’s high schools also produce a large sector of students who need “an enormous amount of remedial work,” Kirwan said during an October 9 panel discussion on higher education presented by the GBC. “It’s a huge problem,” he said.

In addition to the quality of incoming students, Kirwan and fellow panelists Dr. Jay A. Perman, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Dr. Kathleen Hetherington, president,  of Howard Community College also discussed the escalating cost of higher education.

The cost of college is increasingly problematic for families, the presidents agreed. Even at community colleges, 40 percent of students are currently receiving financial aid, Hetherington said. Nevertheless, attending a community college during the first two years of post-high school education saves students thousands of dollars, she said.

A graduate from a public four-year institution with a bachelor’s degree leaves college with an average student debt of $26,000, Kirwan said, which he nevertheless contends is “one heck of an investment” considering that the lifetime earnings of a college graduate will average $1 million more than someone without a degree.

Meanwhile, professionals who emerge from graduate schools with advanced degrees experience a whole different level of debt – averaging between $110,000 for law degrees to more than $200,000 for medical and dental degrees, Perman said.

The high cost of college is beginning to affect campus demographics both at graduate and undergraduate schools, noted Kirwan and Perman. Children from families in the lowest quartile of income have only an 8 percent chance of attending college, while students from families in the highest-income quartile have an 80 percent chance of attending college, according to Kirwan.

In the U.S., an “economic caste system has been created,” Kirwan added. “This is an issue that our society has got to come to grips with or we’re going to lose our founding ethos.”

Meanwhile, according to recent medical college association data, fewer African-American students are going to medical school now than in the 1980s, Perman reported.

At the community college level, it’s critical to keep tuitions low, said Hetherington. This makes community college an affordable higher education alternative both for local high school graduates and for an increasing amount of older students coming back to school to “retool” their skills for career changes or enhancements.

Some parents tend to “pressure” their children to pick a “status” four-year school instead of steering them toward more affordable community colleges for their first two years of higher education. A number of such students end up missing their parents and returning to community college, she said.

Students who come to Howard Community College and other community colleges these days, “love the experience” and the gorgeous campuses that look very much like a four-year school, Hetherington said.

All three presidents agreed that the private sector needs to be much more involved in partnering with higher education, both in developing facilities and in communicating business workforce requirements to educators.

“The old paradigm of the ivory tower, that just won’t work anymore,” Kirwan said, adding that higher education needs “much greater synergy and partnership” with the business sector.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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