U.S. News & World Report announced recently two news stories that directly relate to Washington County. First, they published their national rankings of high schools, broken down by state. Of Washington County’s 10 high schools, eight were ranked in the state’s top 58 among 241 Maryland schools.
There is no question that such rankings get significant criticism. But, regardless of your belief in their precision, these numbers demonstrate that Washington County is producing many college-ready students.
The Washington County Commissioners and the Economic Development Commission have announced priorities for the county’s Economic Development Strategic Plan. The document also mentions the need for “a four-year university in Hagerstown.” This is the plan’s point with which I take clear exception. In fact, we already have six four-year universities in Hagerstown offering programs of study at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown (USMH). Collectively, the resources of Maryland’s 11 public universities are at our disposal, providing virtually any degree for which we can demonstrate need and demand.
The University System of Maryland’s mandated goals provide guidance for our own goal-setting at USMH: Ensure higher education access, affordability and excellence to a diverse community of students. Our higher education gem in downtown Hagerstown is the center of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral-level public higher education access for the region. With more than 20 degree programs, and an enrollment of almost 500 students last fall, we are serving many diverse student interests.
I also want to point out that the structure developed when USMH was first established only permits bachelor’s degree programs to begin at the third-year (junior) level, not with the freshman level. This intends to prevent duplication of resources with the community colleges and encourages USMH’s partner universities and HCC and FCC to work with one another to build efficient, high-quality pathways to degree completion at Maryland’s best public universities.
The national case has been made for more STEM education. Locally, HCC led the way with associate degree programs. Now, we need to provide these community college graduates with the necessary access to four-year bachelor’s degree programs to help them advance into supervisory and other professional roles. Offering STEM bachelor’s degrees locally would also develop a workforce in Washington County that employers could build their businesses upon, including with employees potentially less susceptible to high turnover. Finally, this access would be at the same Maryland universities which many of our children will otherwise move away to attend, but at a lower total cost of education.
As opportunities arise to support the growth of engineering, technology and science at USMH, we need everyone to make their support known. I mention these new STEM degree possibilities as educational seedlings that can take root in Washington County, thereby meeting the state’s and our goals of ensuring local higher education access, affordability and excellence to students.
The Economic Development Strategic Plan states, “... success in attracting and retaining businesses and industries ... will depend on the availability and skills of the local and regional labor force. ... Washington County is positioned for continued success, to the extent that secondary and higher education facilities and workforce training providers in the county and region adapt and expand to meet the needs of new business and industry.” USMH is preparing to contribute to doing just that.
Mark C. Halsey is executive director of University System of Maryland at Hagerstown.