Free college tuition? Glendening proposal: Formidable concerns may make this more hype than reality.

November 24, 1996

PIGGYBACKING ON President Clinton's free-tuition campaign proposal, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has put forth his own version -- more comprehensive but with many of the same question marks about affordability and implementation.

While the president wants a $1,500 tuition tax-credit to make a two-year community college education (or the equivalent) available to any student, Mr. Glendening upped the ante by calling for free four-year tuition at state colleges (or a similar amount at state private colleges) for any Maryland student, from a modest-income family, with a B grade average.

That's an ambitious proposal. It could dramatically change higher education in Maryland. But it also could cost far more than the governor is willing to admit.

Georgia has a more sweeping law that gives a $3,000 tuition voucher to 35,000 Georgia students. If Maryland students were BTC to apply for the Glendening vouchers at the same rate as in Georgia, the price tag could be closer to $70 million than the $10 million cited by the governor.

At a time when state revenues are growing slowly and the governor has advanced an expensive income-tax cut, financing such a vast entitlement program might not be wise.

There are other concerns. The governor's plan would put tremendous pressure on teachers to inflate grade averages to a B level. Students also would opt for "snap" courses where Bs are easy to achieve, instead of signing up for more challenging and rigorous academic programs. The emphasis would be on retaining your scholarship at any cost. Grades, not pursuit of excellence, would matter most.

The governor's plan fails to address a key higher-education weakness: the state's starvation diet for its own colleges. In the past six years, state aid to public colleges has dropped from 44 percent of total operating budget to just 32 percent. No wonder Maryland's public universities still cannot compare with those in Virginia, North Carolina and the Midwest.

The governor and legislators should address those questions before embracing an enticing tuition-voucher plan. State colleges deserve more support from Annapolis to improve the quality of higher education. At the same time, scholarship and loan programs should be boosted to broaden access. Both these steps might prove a wiser investment of tax dollars than a free-tuition plan that, at this stage, sounds more like a political gimmick than a solid piece of fiscal and education policy.

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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