The Long, Slow and Painful Business of Reinventing Education

By April 2, 2015 Commentary No Comments


Just as K-12 education has been going through wrenching changes over the last decade, so now is the wave of change crashing against the foundations of higher education.

The charges and counter-charges at USM are flying in all directions, compounded by claims on both sides that simply cannot both be true. One side says that all the cuts have been tilted against professors, with administration exempted, but the other points to numbers showing the opposite story, with educators taking a smaller percentage hit than others.

Students are upset about losing programs. Tenured professors fear that tenure itself is under assault. In other words, the sky is falling everywhere. Meanwhile, USM continues to bleed red ink, squeezed by three forces coming from different directions, two of which are beyond its control.

The first is the power of demographics. We simply don’t have enough students graduating from high school these days to fill all of the courses, majors and classrooms we have across the state. That’s nothing more than a reflection of a stagnant population and an aging state.

Then, of course, there’s competition. Both the Community Colleges and private schools like UNE and _______ have become more attractive to students who are forced by new economic realities to be far more practical about education than their parents or even their older brothers and sisters were. They might like the idea of going to college for four years to study the classics and art, but the reality is that they can’t afford to do that. They have no choice but to focus their investments in education on the practical realities of a job that will allow them to pay their bills after they graduate.

And, finally, there are the self-inflicted wounds. Some of the changes buffeting USM today have been evident for a long time, but they’ve been ignored. Instead of anticipating the future and changing to meet new demands, evidence has been ignored, people have looked the other way and everyone who have tried to point to the coming catastrophe have been derided as enemies, rather than friends, of education.

Consequently, USM and at the University System as a whole haven’t been allowed to adapt as quickly as needed to a changing world and its new demands. And today a painful reality is taking over events.

For those who support higher education, throwing up moats to defend the status quo is no longer an option. As I’ve mentioned before, at last count we have thirty-five campuses and satellite campuses of the University of Maine and the Community College Program. All to serve a population the size of San Diego. No matter how compelling the argument for higher education – and there are many – that system is simply unsustainable.

So we see the pain of these wrenching changes playing out on the front pages of this and other papers, wishing change could happen more easily. Is it possible today to both support education and change, at the same time? It’s not only possible, it’s essential.

Here’s the challenge we have as a state, when it comes to higher education. In 2010, Maine spent about 18% less of our total income on higher education than the national average. We spent _____ less than other rural states most like us. The situation is undoubtedly worse after the recession and there aren’t immediate prospects for it changing.

Unless we get the economy on a new economic track, and soon, we’re going to have less money tomorrow than we have today, because more of it will have to go to helping people who can’t stay afloat. That is a prescription for a downward spiral of not only higher education but the Maine economy as a whole.

So how do we move forward in a way that makes higher education not only more affordable but more relevant to building the next economy? It isn’t by throwing more money at the system and protecting the system in place today, but by increasing investments in higher education but tying those funds to the kind of structural changes that have to happen.

Here are some of the things that we’re eventually going to need to consider:

  1. Fully integrating the management and planning of the University system and Community Colleges, and even merging campuses where it makes sense,
  2. Removing once and for all the redundancy that we find in campuses across the state,
  3. Moving some campuses to become more specialized around a few core majors,
  4. Closing some of the campuses and satellite campuses that are being propped up with politicians more than students.

Alan Caron is the President of Envision Maine, a non-profit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy and the co-author of an upcoming book called Maine’s Next Economy. He can be reached at

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