Shades of Consolidation For Coppin State

Coppin State University earlier this month announced a new initiative to give graduates of a nearby community college admission pathways and free tuition at the four-year HBCU. To most, the program appears an obviously overdue partnership which can benefit Baltimore City’s marginalized communities in great ways.

But to those of us high-level cynics of the University System of Maryland and its record mistreatment of HBCUs, the partnership is a point of real concern for a state actively doing all it can to avoid a potential $2 billion judgment for historic, federal discrimination against these schools.

Coppin and Baltimore City Community College have enjoyed for years partnerships to help students transition from technical to professional education. The free tuition plan comes just two years after Coppin launched a STEM development and sharing partnership with the University of Baltimore, a predominantly white former commuter school which has transformed into a four-year undergraduate and professional training powerhouse.

A federal judge said that UB was a major element of the successful discrimination suit against the State of Maryland’s “shameful history” of undermining HBCU expansion through program duplication.

These three schools – Coppin, UB and BCCC – have long been privately rumored and publicly discussed as candidates for merger – likely into the University of Baltimore. With long and well-known struggles with enrollment, retention, and finding academic niches of success beyond nursing and criminal justice, Coppin is turning the corner – in part because of support for a president Maria Thompson, several new buildings built across the campus in the 12 years since the lawsuit was filed, and the promise of partnerships like these.

With the growth, it may be hard to see the state avoiding the mess of turning three schools into University of Baltimore-branded properties, especially in this racial and social climate. But it is easy to see the foundation being laid for it, and to understand that schools don’t have to share a name to fulfill a function.

BCCC is in local headlines for its struggles and the head of the team responsible for navigating the school’s turnaround? UB President Kurt Schmoke. Students from Coppin and UB share resources and faculty, with more partnerships on deck.

It is reasonable to assume that the three schools could eventually function as a feeder system for under-resourced minority students in Baltimore City, with UB as the greatest degree-granting partner and Coppin maintaining but a few niche areas. Coppin will persist, largely through the identity it can forge through its athletics and outreach efforts to some of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods.

But it will never get a chance to be a city or state leader in any specific professional area supporting the local economy, it may never expand beyond 5,000 – 6,500 students which can attract thousands of out-of-state students, and it may never become the anchor institution West Baltimore desperately needs. It will always be the transitional gateway to a larger, better-resourced UB with more degree programs at undergraduate and graduate levels, and more workforce pipelines in the city.

It’s a plan which yields none of the messiness associated with a full merger or consolidation, but all the impact of one institution slowly dying, while another uses it to attract more minority student and faculty talent.

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