Maryland's commissioner of higher education said yesterday he plans to upgrade the academic program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), rejecting suggestions that the beleaguered institution be closed or merged.

After a year of debate and study, Sheldon H. Knorr said he will ask the University of Maryland Board of Regents to transfer enough programs from other campuses to UMES to attract 400 to 500 more students.

Additionally, said Knorr, he will urge creation of entirely new programs, such as one in marine biology, in an effort to draw more students to the predominantly black UMES campus in Princes Anne "and make it a viable institution."

Knorr's announcement capped a debate that has continued intermittently since last winter when a legislative budget analyst urged that UMES be shut down on the grounds that its costs per student - $6,631 - were excessive.

That announcement brought a storm of protest from black organizations and Knorr subsequently announced formation of a study group to examine the possibility of merging UMES with predominantly white Salisbury State College or any other options.

In September, that group recommended against closing UMES or merging it with Salisbury State, 12 miles away, but instead urged that the university's College of Agriculture be moved from the College Park campus to Princess Anne.

That brought objections from the University's Board of Regents, which argued that moving the school of agriculture to Princess Anne would be too costly. They decided to study the possibility of establishing a school of veterinary medicine at UMES.

"The State Board for Higher Education does not suggest which programs would be most appropriate to move to the Eastern Shore," Knorr said yesterday. He added that he wanted plans from the regents by July 1 on how to get the 400 to 500 extra students at UMES by moving existing programs there.

Knorr said he expected the additional students and programs to be phased in at UMES over a three-year period, bringing the institution's enrollment to between 1,400 and 1,500 by the early 1980s.

Knorr also said the regents would be asked to come up with a five-year cost reduction plan at UMES aimed at bringing its costs per student in line with those at other Maryland colleges.

In the budget analysis a year ago, it was noted that only the medical and professional schools at the University of Maryland in Baltimore had a per-student cost equal to UMES. Nearby Salisbury State College had per-student cost of $3,041, less than half tha of UMES.

UMES officials have argued that declining enrollment raised per student cost in recent years as certain expenses have remain constant. Additionally, they said, UMES has extensive remedial programs that drive costs up.

The Board of Higher Education, Knorr also said, will undertake a year-long review of any duplication of programs at UMES and Salisbury State. UMES officials have complained in recent years that duplication of their programs at Salisbury State has made it difficult to recruit students.

Knorr said he expected UMES would continue to attract large numbers of black students because of its experience in dealing with minorities and its identity as a primarily black institution.

With the addition of new programs and an increase in the student population, Knorr said, "I hope we would be attracting students of all races and both sexes."