King: Higher education recommendations report won’t be ready by Dec. 1 deadline

King: Higher education recommendations report won’t be ready by Dec. 1 deadline
A view of the Maryland State House in December 2021. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

A legislative work group established to assess Maryland Higher Education Commission policies for authorizing degree programs was tasked with producing a report with recommendations by Dec. 1, but that’s not going to happen.

Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery), a co-chair of the Program Approval Process Workgroup, said in a recent interview that a report may not be ready until January.

So far no recommendations have been offered to improve the commission’s process for approving new academic programs. That process came under scrutiny after the board made a  controversial decision this summer to authorize Towson University’s request to create a business analytics degree program over the objection of officials at Morgan State University who argued that it would duplicate its own program.

Towson has since withdrawn its request.

“We’ve just got to figure out this,” King said, referring to the approval process, how it works and how it could be improved.

Currently, commission staff review proposals to determine whether a degree program meets criteria, then recommend whether a program should be established.

Any school that opposes establishment of a program can request a hearing to challenge the recommendation. Then the board can review the matter and vote to approve or reject the proposal. In the case of a private school, it can establish the program despite the board’s disapproval, but the private school would risk not getting any funding it seeks from the state.

The work group postponed its Nov. 7 meeting, which would have been its fourth, because some members couldn’t attend, including King and the other co-chair, Del. Stephanie Smith (D-Baltimore City). Both legislators are members of the joint Spending Affordability Committee, which was briefed on the state budget on that day.

The work group meeting was rescheduled for Tuesday at the House of Delegates building in Annapolis so they could review information not fully discussed at last month’s online session.

Yet to be discussed are several recommendations such as having the commission create an advisory committee to evaluate program duplication. That suggestion came from the Maryland HBCU Advocates, a coalition of alumni and supporters from the state’s four historically Black colleges and universities. That coalition’s recommendations are now posted on the Department of Legislative Services website.

In “follow-up” documents on that website the commission expands upon how it differentiates and defines higher education degrees.

The commission defines specific types of degrees, but says it relies “on the institutions to determine these distinctions as they design and propose new programs.”

Also on the website is the commission’s explanation of how Capitol Technology University in Prince George’s County, a private institution focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), got the commission’s approval for a “master of research” graduate program in quantum computing.

Another “follow-up” document on the website summarizes processes for approving institutions’ mission statements (which the work group reviewed in September) in Maryland and 16 comparable states. Maryland’s commission reviews an institution’s statement every four years.

Virginia’s higher education council, every six years, reviews and provides recommendations on an institution’s statement to its governor and General Assembly.

Individual boards of trustees at Ohio’s public universities and colleges and community colleges approve mission statements every two years and submit them to the chancellor of higher education. According to that state’s Department of Education, trustees at four-year institutions are “appointed by the governor of Ohio with the advice and consent of the state Senate.”

Meanwhile, one of Maryland’s work group members wants to make sure community colleges aren’t forgotten.

Kristin Mallory, vice president of academic affairs for Wor-Wic Community College, said some students have experienced challenges when trying to transfer credits to a four-year institution. Several institutions use articulation or transfer agreements that outline how a student’s academic path matches a particular major and courses at another college or university.

“It’s important that as a state we work together to make sure that these educational opportunities are available for our students and that it’s not in an adversarial, or challenging situation for students,” she said.

“It’s been really helpful to hear from all the different stakeholders at the same time…” said Smith, the work group’s co-chair. “We tend to have individual meetings [with state lawmakers], but they don’t always benefit from sharing the thoughts of their colleagues in real time. This is a unique opportunity for institutional leaders and their designees to be hearing the thoughts of their peers at once.”

King said she hopes higher education officials can agree on whatever recommendations are presented.

However, “I don’t think there’s ever a decision that everybody’s always happy with,” said King, who added her goal is to “try and make the fairest process possible.”