Higher education costs shiftingfrom taxpayer to tuition payer


March 14, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

For the past 15 years, there has been a major shifting of the earth in higher education. Seldom discussed publicly, the shift has sobering implications for those students and parents who will be paying tuition over the next 15 years.

Simply put, the burden of paying for a college education has shifted dramatically from the taxpayer to the tuition payer -- so much so that some "public" colleges and universities are "public" in name only.

The shift is a national phenomenon, occurring more dramatically in some states than in others. Thomas G. Mortenson, an Iowa researcher, estimates that between 1979 and 1992, $11 billion of the higher education tab shifted nationally from federal taxpayers ($4 billion) and state taxpayers ($7 billion) to tuition payers.

At one extreme are states such as Maine and Arkansas that have tried to maintain levels of state support.

At the other extreme are California, Vermont, Rhode Island and Virginia. Three significant statistics: State funding now amounts to only 13 percent of the public higher education budget in California. The University of Virginia at Charlottesville gets only 21 percent of its operating funds from the commonwealth. State funds make up but 12 percent of the University of Maryland Medical School's budget.

Typically, Maryland lies somewhere in the middle. The Southern Regional Education Board, a compact of Southern states based in Atlanta, estimates that the state share of Maryland public colleges' expenses declined from 59 percent to 49 percent in the decade between 1984 and 1994. Correspondingly, tuition payers' share increased from 30 percent to 40 percent.

(A smaller proportion comes from "local funds" such as endowment income, alumni donations and other money raised by the universities.)

Over the past five years, Marylanders in the university system have been hit with tuition increases of 7.3 percent, 11.8 percent, 9 percent, 9.6 percent and 12.5 percent.

Who -- or what -- is the culprit? Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System, says higher education across the country "is being squeezed out by health, welfare and prisons." All three have begun to consume state budgets; in 1991, Medicaid and public safety passed higher education in Maryland state spending, and Medicaid continues to climb off the charts.

This trend is particularly worrisome because there can be no solution in the short run. The universities can overcome a recession -- and did in the early 1990s -- but the shift in social obligations appears to be permanent.

"State support as a percentage of total expenditures in higher education is going to go down year after year after year," says Edward T. Lewis, president of St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland. "There's no way it's ever going to go up -- ever."

Dr. Lewis, who heads a small public liberal arts college that is run separately from the University of Maryland System, spotted the trend a few years ago and struck his own deal with the state.

In return for doubling tuition (to $5,000) by 1997 and increasing financial aid significantly, St. Mary's gets a set amount from the state tied to the cost of living. In effect it's a block grant; St. Mary's tells the state how it spent the money after the fact. It can also plan three and four years ahead, unlike the other Maryland public universities.

Eventually, Dr. Lewis says, St. Mary's will be effectively weaned from state aid (and state regulation). The former female seminary will be a "private" college.

Easy for you, says Dr. Langenberg. St. Mary's, a 1,500-student school that already has many of the characteristics of a private college, is a horse of a different hue and size from the behemoth UM System. For the system to go the route of St. Mary's, he says, would cost $200 million.

Dr. Langenberg believes that what is happening is nothing less than the smashing of a 200-year-old informal pact that commits society (primarily through state governments) to pay the majority of the cost of higher education on the grounds that schooling benefits both society and the individual.

But those considerations are being crushed under the increasingly urgent social obligations of the state. This includes, by the way, the obligation to reform elementary-secondary education. Lower education in America is considered a dramatic failure that needs fixing, while Americans brag about their system of higher education.

Yet it is the college degree -- not the high school diploma -- that counts in a knowledge-based economy -- and that will be ever more beyond the reach of the poor if this trend continues.

Chess dynasty

A chess dynasty is developing at Baltimore City College, which won the state championship last weekend over 25 other teams in a competition at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. City will travel to the national high school championships April 7-9 in Chicago.

The City team came out of nowhere three years ago to win the state championship. Last year it finished second, and it has been the Baltimore champ the past two years.

There's even a "Sweet 16" later this spring for two of City's top players, who will compete with the 14 other best high school players in Maryland for a full scholarship to UMBC.

Donte Everett, one of the City players, finished 14th in the nation in his category last year. This year's 10-member team also has its first female member, freshman Erica Whorley.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.