A plan to consolidate Maryland's higher education system under one powerful governing board took a major step forward this week when it got the endorsement of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who would gain significant control over public colleges and universities.

Schaefer, who embraced the plan Tuesday during a meeting with presidents of the state's public four-year colleges, said passage of such a proposal by the General Assembly is the key to future increases in state funding.

Details of the reorganization plan are expected to be released next week by the group of presidents. From the outline discussed by the governor and college leaders, however, it appears certain that the plan would give a "superboard" power over academic programs, budgets and the hiring of top officials at 13 institutions.

Under the present system, four trustee boards and a state agency that Schaefer has characterized as relatively weak have the duty of overseeing the institutions.

In addition, Morgan State University and St. Mary's College have separate governing boards that report directly to the state.

Citing the problems inherent in such diverse controls, state officials have long sought to consolidate higher education oversight. The push toward a unified authority has accelerated in recent years as higher education has been forced to contend with fewer students, declining state funding and soaring costs.

State officials, in looking seriously for ways to cut duplication of programs and to trim costs, have hit on plans to set up a "superboard" that could develop programs and do long-range planning on a statewide basis.

"No one is saying we have a crisis," said David Iannucci, the governor's deputy legislative officer. "We just think we could do better."

In July, a group of 11 presidents presented the initial reorganization plan to Schaefer, patterned largely after one developed during Harry Hughes' term as governor.

At a closed meeting Tuesday, the governor gave the group the "go-ahead" to make its plans public, said Iannucci, who was at the meeting.

Schaefer "made it clear governance was his number one priority" for the upcoming legislative session, Iannucci said.

In an interview yesterday, Iannucci said the governor said he will "not act favorably" on requests for more funding if the reorganization plan is scuttled in the upcoming legislative session.

The reorganization is expected to generate fierce debate.

Leaders of at least two schools as well as black legislators have criticized the plan as eroding the autonomy necessary to develop excellent academic programs and the distinctiveness of traditionally black institutions including Bowie State College.

Earlier this month, black legislators said the problem with higher education in Maryland is insufficient funding, not organization.

They called for more funding for public colleges and universities and an additional $13 million in aid to poor and minority students.

In a position paper released this month, they suggested only minor changes in the system of governing boards.