Perhaps never, at least in modern times, has a higher-education year in Maryland opened with such an air of trepidation. Public and private colleges and universities, which took major "hits" in state aid last year, are certain to have to participate in this year's $500 million deficit-elimination plan. Students face uncertainty on course availability, probable tuition increases (even at mid-year) and cutbacks in federal, state and institutional aid. Even some tenured professors who thought they had lifetime jobs may find themselves out of work by next June.
Weathering this storm will require fortitude, preparation and the willingness to cooperate, even to sacrifice. Late last week, the presidents of the schools in the University of Maryland System asked their governing Board of Regents for the widest possible latitude in making this new round of budget cuts. It is a reasonable request. The campuses have different missions; each faces a different set of circumstances, and each went about last year's paring differently. Coppin State College, for example, required 10 furlough days, while others required three or five.
Furloughs are almost certain again this year, but the schools learned last year that they can be relatively painless when some furlough days are attached to holidays and when a campus' lowest-paid employees get some protection. Full-time professors may find themselves working evenings to cover the classes formerly taught by part-timers. Students' class schedules may be inconvenient. Classes may be more crowded.
And there will be tuition increases, accompanied by howls of protest. Public colleges and universities in Maryland, however, have not yet reached the saturation point. While tuition has outstripped inflation for the past five years, the University of Maryland System's tuitions last year were only slightly above the national average and below the average of most neighboring states. Tuition and fees at College Park were $2,778, not a bargain but not an outrage. Compare that to $8,382 for out-of-state students at College Park or the $10,488 average at the state's private colleges and universities.
The guiding principle in increasing tuition should be to protect genuinely needy students. In the recession, some schools are having to abandon "need-blind" admissions policies. We hope that won't be necessary in Maryland. The genius of America's much-admired higher education system is that there is a place for everyone regardless of income. With colleges struggling to fill empty classrooms, that still should be the overriding philosophy in the Free State.