Midyear increase in tuition possible, Md. regents warn

Unprecedented step subject to regents' vote

January 10, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Under pressure to cut its budget, the University System of Maryland is considering the unusual step of passing a midyear tuition increase as high as 5 percent for the spring semester that begins this month, officials said yesterday.

The increase, which could mean $90 to $120 in extra payments for in-state undergraduates this spring and as much as $340 extra for out-of-state students, would be in addition to the 5.5 percent tuition increase passed last May for the current school year.

With another increase, students would pay as much as 10.8 percent more this semester than they did last spring.

System Chancellor William E. Kirwan and Board of Regents Chairman Clifford M. Kendall announced the possible midyear increase yesterday in a letter to students. The increase might be needed, they said, because the state might ask the 11-campus system to further cut its budget for this year - a cut they say would be hard to cover without higher tuition.

"We consider a midyear tuition increase to be an extraordinary step," they wrote. "It would be taken only to ensure that our institutions are able to maintain a high quality of education and essential student services."

The possibility of an unscheduled increase in the middle of the school year - a step never taken in the system's 15-year history - reflects the state's worsening fiscal situation, officials say.

Just a few weeks ago, university administrators said they had managed to achieve an initial 3.5 percent cut in this year's budget by eliminating open positions and holding down such expenses as faculty trips and equipment purchases.

If the state sought further reductions, they said, they would consider layoffs and furloughs, but no officials mentioned the prospect of a midyear tuition increase.

Yesterday, however, officials said their analysis of new state revenue estimates and signals from Annapolis suggest the state might request another major reduction in this year's budget at least as large as the prior cut.

And having already reduced spending to respond to the first cut, officials said, they would have a hard time finding more savings in the system's $2 billion budget. A 5 percent tuition increase - which, systemwide, would bring in $15 million for the semester - might be unavoidable, they said.

"No one wanted to have to go here, but there seems to be very little alternative but to spread the pain," said Frostburg State University President Catherine R. Gira.

A 5 percent increase in undergraduate tuition at the system's flagship campus in College Park would raise in-state spring semester tuition there, not counting fees, from $2,286 to $2,400. At Towson University, tuition would rise from $1,902 to $1,997, and at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, from $2,307 to $2,422.

Kendall, the new regents chairman, said system officials are still considering the possibility of furloughs or layoffs to cope with another round of cuts - a measure used in the fiscal crunch of the early 1990s.

But administrators at the campus level said a midyear tuition increase is a more likely step. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has told the system not to furlough employees, they said, and it's unclear whether Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will do the same.

"If [another budget cut] happens, tuition increases is where we're headed," said George Cathcart, spokesman for the University of Maryland, College Park. "At this point, we don't anticipate layoffs and furloughs."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he accepts system officials' statement that they have few places to turn for savings and said he hoped furloughs and layoffs could be avoided.

"I don't think they have any alternative" to a midyear increase, he said. "The chancellor has no alternative but to shift some of the burden to parents and taxpayers."

A midyear increase would not simply be a one-time surcharge but a permanent increase in the system's tuition structure, officials said. Edwin S. Crawford, chairman of the state's college savings plan, noted that passing a midyear increase would thus serve another purpose for the system - reducing the need for an even larger, possibly highly unpopular increase in next year's tuition if the budget crisis continues.

Instead of having to seek an increase as high as 10 percent for next school year, he said, the system could seek only another 5 percent. Combined with a 5 percent increase to the tuition base this spring, students would still be hit with a cumulative increase of a little more than 10 percent over the previous year, but in two increments that might seem more palatable, Crawford said.

"With the sensitivity about large increases, they can say, `Let's do two 5 percents,'" he said. He noted that public universities in other states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania, have imposed even more "draconian" increases.

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