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Published: Tuesday, 4/1/2008

Ohio higher-ed plan aims to spur degrees, cut costs

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Ohio's public universities and community colleges would compete less with each other and play more specialized roles under a proposed 10-year state plan unveiled yesterday to hold down tuition, produce more graduates, and keep them in the state.

"The end results will be this state reclaiming its historic role as a state that believes in higher education, that provides a higher education for all its citizens, that has the most talented and educated work force in the world, and is also one of the most prosperous states in the union," said Higher Education Chancellor Eric Fingerhut.

With college degrees increasingly tied to economic performance, Ohio ranks 37th in the nation in terms of the proportion of adults with four-year degrees and 38th in two-year degrees. Gov. Ted Strickland had previously set a goal of increasing enrollment by 230,000 students by 2017.

A 2006 report by the Ohio Board of Regents showed that, after annual tuition hikes averaging 9 percent, a college degree in Ohio cost 45 percent more than the national average. Despite a tight budget, the state last year boosted support to enable schools to freeze tuition for two years.

Mr. Fingerhut held up the recent merger of the University of Toledo and the Medical University of Ohio as an example of what the plan strives to achieve.

"[That] is one of the most exciting places to be in the country today as it becomes a truly model urban research institution driving the economic development of the region," he said. "The University of Toledo ranks third among all public universities in Ohio in their research expenditures."

Highlights of the proposals include:

•Making a degree more affordable through greater financial aid, more private support, less degree duplication, more collaboration between schools, and an unspecified amount of future state support.

•Ending competition between schools by having each play specific, yet-to-be-identified missions as part of regional "centers of excellence."

•Guaranteeing that high-quality four and two-year degrees are available within 30 miles of every Ohioan by using the existing infrastructure of 13 four-year universities, their 24 branch campuses, and 23 two-year community colleges.

•Having higher-performing high school seniors simultaneously complete their first year of college tuition-free.

•Allowing students to simultaneously enroll at both two-year and four-year schools, so that they can progress seamlessly from one to the other.

•Replacing the current practice of funding colleges based on enrollment with a new system focused on how well schools perform on a 20-point report card examining such issues as cost, graduation and graduate-retention rates, and student satisfaction.

UT President Lloyd Jacobs said that while some schools would thrive under the system, others would "thrive less."

"As to whether schools will ultimately disappear in this 10-year plan, I don't think so," he said. "But not all schools are equal. Having said that, when one speaks of mission distinction, that doesn't necessarily mean that every one of the schools has to be distinct from every other one. There can be specific categories, high-quality undergraduate programs and a major research institution, in every corner of the state."

Sidney Ribeau, president of Bowling Green State University less than 30 miles away, expressed concern about how an individual institution's mission will be determined.

"For example, we've had a strength in the performing and visual arts for a number of years," he said. "We have to be careful not to impose a mission on a school. The mission should come naturally from a university's historic strength.''

Owens Community College's enrollment growth this year represented 15 percent of the growth seen statewide, so there are concerns about any new plan that would shift the funding focus.

"We have so many students who are already served by the much lower cost [of going to a community college]," said Owens President Christa Adams. "We serve some of the most challenging populations and successfully transfer them to universities [after two years]. We need a [financial] boost."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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