What's this? A college president going before the Maryland Higher Education Commission seeking less state support? Well, sort of.
Weary of the current round of budget cuts, St. Mary's College of Maryland has developed a bold plan that it formally presented to the state panel. Over the next five years, the public liberal arts college would double its tuition, from $2,500 to $5,000. The state's share of the cost of running St. Mary's would drop from the current 49 percent to 41. (Actual state dollars would not decrease, but would increase more slowly than they would otherwise.) The share coming from tuition would rise from 28 percent to 41.
St. Mary's would still be a state college, with tuition perhaps a third that of private liberal arts schools (though somewhat higher than University of Maryland campuses). As a public school, it would be committed to making sure there is enough financial aid for students unable to pay.
The plan, which is to be studied by the higher education commission and would require approval of the legislature, has a number of advantages:
* Public education is highly subsidized, with the state paying three-quarters of the cost. This forces those who can to pick up more of the cost, while retaining subsidies for the needy (including middle-class families pinched by college costs).
* In a time of frantic, emergency budget cutting, St. Mary's would be able to plan for the next several years. Students and their parents, while having to ante up more, would at least be sure of the costs -- and sure that they would continue to get the quality of education for which they are paying. While St. Mary's would be spared further cuts, it would not have any claim on increased state funds when the economy turns around. That is a fair deal for all sides.
* As part of the plan, St. Mary's would be freed from micro-management by budget analysts and bureaucrats in Annapolis. This sort of arrangement should be pursued by all of the state's campuses -- whether or not they agree to hefty tuition hikes -- because it should lead to better management and provide needed flexibility in tough times.
Edward T. Lewis, president of St. Mary's, should be congratulated for figuring out how to make the best of a bad situation. He also deserves commendation for improving the quality and reputation of St. Mary's to the point that it can compete in the marketplace despite sharp tuition increases.
This plan is right for St. Mary's College and for Maryland. It can't be imposed on other campuses -- those with a higher proportion of needy students, in particular, could not make it work in the same way. But all campuses would benefit from a willingness to explore new approaches to accommodate the new budget realities of the 1990s.