State funding of private colleges draws fire Cash-strapped public schools criticize grant program

April 02, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

The way Richard Graham sees it, the state has better things to do with $24 million than give it to a group of private colleges that includes wealthy Johns Hopkins University and a Baltimore cooking school.

For one, says Dr. Graham, how about saving his chemistry department at Towson State University? It's one of about 100 programs in the University of Maryland system now on the budget chopping block.

"I am absolutely opposed. There's no way that we should busing public money to fund private schools," said Dr. Graham. "Why should we?"

Although Maryland has provided financial assistance to its private colleges for some 200 years, the funding this year has touched a nerve with some in financially strapped public higher education.

The 11-campus University of Maryland system, which has just gone through three years of budget cuts, is in the painful process of cutting another $25 million by abolishing academic departments and streamlining administrative offices.

"It would be one thing if we were fully funded and we ourselvesweren't going through austerity and our own cutbacks," said Frank Parks, chairman of the University of Maryland system-wide faculty council. The private-school grants are more annoying to public colleges, he said, "when we're going through times like this."

But in Annapolis, the legislature has few qualms. Most lawmakers say it's a worthwhile use of state money to help sustain private campuses, important cultural and economic development centers. And, supporters note, the colleges generally earmark part of the money for scholarships for Maryland students.

Although the final figure is still up in the air, the legislature has appropriated at least $24 million for next year for 15 private institutions, including three Catholic colleges and the Baltimore International Culinary College.

"We think it's a good bargain for both sides," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of a Senate subcommittee that oversees higher education budgets. "We wouldn't do it if there weren't a benefit to us."

Maryland is one of only a handful of states that gives unrestricted grants to its private colleges. In the past five years, the state gave the 15 schools $111 million in operating grants and another $29.6 million for construction projects.

Under a formula written into state law, the private institutions, based on their enrollment, annually receive a percentage of the per-student funding that went to certain public colleges the previous year. The money this year amounts to roughly 3 percent of the total Maryland is spending on higher education.

In next year's budget, the Johns Hopkins University and its Peabody Institute together will receive as much as $11.2 million -- a figure that surpasses the state aid for St. Mary's College, a small public liberal arts school in Southern Maryland, and almost matches the state funds going to Coppin State College in Baltimore.

For some critics of the program, the most troubling grants go to the three Catholic institutions -- Mount St. Mary's College in Frederick County and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and Loyola College in North Baltimore -- which received a total of $5.9 million last year. Notre Dame's share of $1.1 million represented more than 7 percent of its budget.

Civil libertarians challenged the grant program in the early 1970s, arguing that the grants violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in 1974 that colleges such as Loyola were not "pervasively sectarian" and thus were eligible for state assistance.

Today, the presidents of the private schools must sign an affidavit stating that none of the money will support sectarian purposes, such as paying a priest's salary. Some primarily religious institutions, such as Baltimore Hebrew University and St. Mary's Seminary, receive no state assistance.

"We think that it's not good for either the religion or for the state," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit against the program.

"We think it diminishes the religion to let the state muck around with it. And it cheats the taxpayers," he said.

Maryland's support for private colleges goes back to the 18th century, when the state began giving money to its only two colleges, Washington College on the Eastern Shore and St. John's College in Annapolis. In 1970, the state established a formal support program. The current formula was written into law in 1976.

Over the years, the private-college group has become a plugged-in player in State House education issues. Respected presidents, such as the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger of Loyola College, have fought for decades to keep the funding intact.

In a demonstration of the program's entrenched status, the General Assembly in January enacted legislation renaming it for the ailing Father Sellinger, perhaps the only time a Catholic priest has been encoded into Maryland's law books.

One of the smallest grants last year -- $225,178 -- went to the culinary college. The downtown college reported using the money for scholarships for some of its Maryland students.

Villa Julie College in Baltimore County would seem to be the most dependent on the state, as almost 10 percent of its budget comes from state aid. Sojourner-Douglass College, a small, financially troubled institution in East Baltimore, also counts on state aid for nearly 10 percent of its budget.

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