Maryland's universities squirm at prospect of losing $43 million

Plan would likely force midyear tuition increase

January 18, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In a realization of university officials' worst fears, the budget released yesterday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. calls for deep cuts in higher education funding that will wipe out the budget gains of the past few years and almost certainly force a midyear increase in tuition.

Under Ehrlich's proposal, the 11 colleges and universities of the University System of Maryland would slash this year's $868 million budget, which was already reduced by about $30 million a few months ago, by an additional $36 million.

The two public colleges outside the system, Morgan State University and St. Mary's College, would experience a similar reduction, for a total hit to public four-year campuses of $43 million in this year's budget - the largest single cut in Ehrlich's proposal.

Next year, the university system would be funded at the same level as the twice-reduced sum for this year - about $800 million, 8 percent less than what it was to receive this year, and about $105 million less than it was seeking for next year. That would return the system roughly to the level of state support it received two years ago, eliminating the funding increases of recent years.

Ehrlich's proposal also calls for the system to lose more of the reserves it relies on to keep up its bond rating, bringing this year's total reserve reduction to $29 million, leaving about $250 million.

"I was afraid of something like this," said system Regent Joseph D. Tydings, a former U.S. senator. "We were sort of prepared, but you're never prepared until you see how bad it is."

University officials were bracing for major cuts because higher education funding makes up about 10 percent of the state's general-fund spending. Spending for kindergarten-to-12th-grade education is higher, but the state is required by its constitution to fund those schools adequately, a protection not afforded to higher education.

The budget proposal's authors explain the reduction as unavoidable: "Since 1998, Maryland higher education institutions have collectively witnessed a growth of 45 percent. ... Higher education funding must be brought back to more sustainable levels."

Last week, system Chancellor William E. Kirwan sent students a letter saying that a second reduction in this year's budget might force the system to pass a rare, midyear tuition increase for the spring semester of up to 5 percent.

Yesterday, system officials said the Board of Regents will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to vote on a midyear increase, which, if passed at 5 percent across the system, will bring an additional $15 million in revenue. A 5 percent increase would bring tuition for the spring semester to 10.8 percent higher than it was last spring.

"It sounds like we're going to be forced to raise tuition this semester, which you hate to do, but you've got to keep up the basic level of academic excellence that we've achieved," said Tydings.

University officials have said they hope to avoid furloughs and layoffs, the measure they were forced to take in the early 1990s. However, projections done by Vice Chancellor Joseph F. Vivona last month for a situation that was only slightly worse than the proposal released yesterday found that the only way to avoid furloughs and layoffs would be to raise tuition by 17 percent or reduce the system's reserves by 35 percent.

"We knew that a second cut of any magnitude [in this year's budget] would leave the possibility of tuition increases, which wouldn't even do the whole thing, and the possibility of furloughs and layoffs," Frostburg State University President Catherine M. Gira said yesterday. "It could be a replay of the early 1990s."

The latest cuts in this and next year's budgets represent a stark turnaround for state universities that in the three years before this one enjoyed annual increases averaging about 12 percent - the largest in the nation.

The strong support for higher education was a hallmark of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration, and university officials have worried that they wouldn't receive the same level of support from his successor. Yesterday, officials said they didn't view Ehrlich's proposal as a deliberate attempt to undermine Glendening's legacy, but rather as a necessary measure in bad times.

"Governor Ehrlich's proposed budget reflects the harsh fiscal reality facing our state," said Kirwan in a written statement.

The proposed budget calls for about $194 million in funding for the state's community colleges, a slight increase. An 8 percent decrease in scholarship funding - something Ehrlich had said he hoped to avoid cutting - will be focused on the merit-based HOPE scholarship program.

Ehrlich had been weighing an overhaul of the state's higher education administration. The Sun reported this week on overlaps between the university system office and the Higher Education Commission, the agency that oversees all post-secondary schools in the state. But Ehrlich's plan cuts only three of the agency's 82 positions.

The cuts extend to the state's private colleges, which will receive $43.7 million in state funding next year, $3.5 million less than they were expecting, said Tina Bjarekull, president of Maryland Independent Colleges and Universities. "It may not be as bad as it could be, but it's not good news," she said.

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