ANNAPOLIS, DEC. 16 -- In an abrupt turnabout, the administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer has decided not to pursue an overhaul of Maryland's higher education system and, instead, will try to improve educational quality by making a few changes and spending a lot more money.

Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, who is in charge of drawing up the college-revision plan for the upcoming General Assembly session, said today he had abandoned, for now, the idea of clustering all 13 of the state's four-year public colleges and universities under a single new board of regents. That is a proposal he, college presidents, and Schaefer have advocated for months.

Steinberg said he was finding it impossible to reach a consensus with key legislators on the specifics of such a consolidation. Instead, he will simply recommend disbanding the State Board for Higher Education, the 11-year-old agency that oversees the state colleges system, and replacing it with a more powerful coordinating board.

The new board, unlike the current one, could kill academic programs, have more power over the curriculum of private colleges, and would include the state's scholarship program. Each school, however, would make its own budget requests directly to the state government.

In addition, Steinberg plans to ask for a $50 million increase in spending on higher education. That would be in addition to the regular annual increase to what is now the state's $615 million higher education budget. The administration also plans to increase student financial aid, now about $12 million, by up to $5 million.

"That's a very big increase," said Sheldon H. Knorr, Maryland's higher education commissioner. "That's a hell of an increase."

Steinberg said he believes this approach will enable the state to accomplish its most important higher education priorities. They include enhancing the state's flagship campus, the University of Maryland at College Park; improving graduate training in Baltimore; increasing access to college, particularly for poor and minority students; preserving the colleges' individuality, and making the schools more efficient and accountable to the governor.

Key legislators who have been working with Steinberg on the plan were divided on his new strategy. Some said the state's colleges would be helped more by money than by a reshuffling of governing boards. "We can come up with any structure, {but} if we don't have substantial bucks, everyone will tear it apart," said Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), one of the Senate's experts on higher education.

Others were frustrated that, after months of intense deliberation, Steinberg had chosen only modest changes. The revisions "are not to the level that I wanted," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Charles J. (Buzz) Ryan (D-Prince George's). "I expect more."

In essence, Steinberg rejected a plan to reorganize colleges that was written last summer by the presidents of 11 of the 13 public col-"We can come up with any structure, {but} if we don't have substantial bucks, everyone will tear it apart."

-- Sen. Arthur Dorman

leges and universities and endorsed by Schaefer, who has argued that the institutions should be more accountable and efficient.

Schaefer's aides said he and Steinberg met today and discussed the new approach.

Just today, John S. Toll, the University of Maryland president and the plan's chief architect, personally delivered a letter to Schaefer and Steinberg repeating his support for the consolidation of the 13 institutions.

"Attempts to have a strengthened coordinating board instead of improvements in the governance system would be a bad setback," Toll wrote. Aides to Schaefer said tonight that Toll had met with Steinberg and had softened his position, but Toll couldn't be reached for comment last night.