In this year’s session of the Maryland General Assembly, legislators again launched an attack on funding the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown (USMH). Motivated by an apples-to-oranges comparison with other, seemingly similar facilities around the state, this year’s proposed legislation again threatened to undermine the center’s progress and strip Washington County of its link to the state’s universities.
Due in large part to the work of our delegation, efforts to cut the center’s funding failed. This year’s narrow escape, however, prompts a question about Annapolis’ commitment to the future of Washington County. Even in years when we are successful in beating back the challenge, the negative publicity slows the momentum the center has done so much to build. At best, the controversy raises doubt in the minds of students, parents, and faculty — the very stakeholders upon whom the center depends for its success.
At worst, the annual legislative kabuki keeps the opponents’ argument alive in Annapolis until they figure out a way to kill us off for good.
The state built the center — and the funding model to support it — to solve several vexing problems in Washington County. First, geography creates a disadvantage for Hagerstown when it comes to access to educational opportunities. With the closest state schools 70 miles to the east and west, no other place in Maryland is further away from our public universities. To solve this problem, USMH is not a campus in the conventional sense. Instead, the University System owns the center, and any of the 13 system schools can offer programs here. At USMH, a student in Washington County can enroll in a degree program from, for example, Towson University or Salisbury University orUniversity of Maryland, College Park — right here in Hagerstown.
Second, our community’s economic history did not focus on higher education, and so the proportion of our population with college degrees lags behind Maryland’s by nearly half. Over a decade ago, the state realized this disparity had become a drag on Washington County’s prosperity, so it responded with a commitment from the University System to build and maintain a center in Hagerstown to help solve the problem.
Lastly, and this was a bonus for Hagerstown, the powers that be originally gave USMH a second mission: downtown revitalization. The state invested strategically in Hagerstown, and the local community responded with its own investments of time, talent and treasure. The state’s initial $13 million renovation just west of Public Square anchors a downtown core and helped spark both a multi-million dollar library project and a public high school for the arts.
The original case for the center’s construction is matched only by its impressive record of success. Over the last eight years, the center has graduated 868 students and increased its Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs) by 54 percent, figures that put us on target with the University System’s goals. The number of programs offered at USMH — both a result of the center’s success and a predictor of more success to come — has grown to more than 20.
Washington County understands the state’s need to deploy resources strategically, and we turn to the state only when the challenge we face is greater than our ability to meet it. Access to higher education is just such a challenge, but it’s an argument we can’t seem to win. The annual fight in Annapolis over USMH funding ignores the center’s original missions, its record of success and the need in Washington County for help in equipping our community for the 21st century.
Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce.