Md.'s private colleges fear major cut in state aid

Legislators consider plan to reduce funding by half

January 30, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

For three decades, Maryland has given public dollars to its private colleges at levels higher than almost anywhere else in the country.

But now, lawmakers and public education allies are asking: Can a strapped state continue to give millions in unrestricted aid to the Johns Hopkins University, Loyola College and 15 other private institutions?

Call it the $43 million question. That is the amount the state gives annually to Maryland's private colleges under a formula based on student population.

As it happens, $43 million is also the amount of the latest cut to Maryland's higher education budget proposed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The reductions have forced a rare midyear tuition increase and talk of layoffs at public colleges.

After leaving the formula largely untouched for years, lawmakers are weighing a proposal that would cut taxpayer support for private colleges by more than half, to about $21 million. Under a recommendation made last week by legislative analysts, private institutions would receive public aid based on how many in-state students they have, rather than on their total enrollment, as is now the case.

The proposal has provoked alarm among private college officials, many of whom will be in Annapolis today on an annual lobbying visit to tell legislators that a sharp cut in state funding would devastate their schools.

Lawmakers say they expect to give the proposed reduction serious consideration as they try to balance the budget.

"It will probably be pretty attractive in our search for additional cuts," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat and member of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending. "We'll listen to the downsides ... but it will be hard to overlook a recommendation like that in times like this."

Added Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat on the same subcommittee, "Everything is on the table from a cuts standpoint, and I wouldn't be surprised if they look at the formula for private higher education."

Named for Sellinger

The formula dates to 1972, when the financial struggles of several small private colleges prompted the state to begin devoting funds to independent higher education. Named after the former Loyola College president, the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, the formula provides private colleges with a fixed percentage of the funding for public universities. If unchanged, next year it will send $17.6 million to Hopkins, $5.5 million to Loyola and $2.9 million to McDaniel College, among others.

The private colleges say the support has helped sustain a diverse higher education system in which they offer programs not available elsewhere and absorb students who might otherwise crowd public colleges. They argue that the funding - about 5 percent of what the state's 13 public colleges receive - has also helped them attract students from other states, many of whom stay in Maryland after they graduate.

"You want the best and the brightest," said Tina M. Bjarekull, president of Maryland's Independent College and University Association. "You want to retain them so they don't go somewhere else."

Only a handful of states provide taxpayer support to private colleges through an annual formula - and among those that do, almost none gives as much as Maryland.

New York gives $44 million in state aid to its private colleges, but the money is divided among 101 colleges. New Jersey gives $24 million to its 14 private colleges. Michigan gives about $10 million annually to 50 schools, and Illinois gives about $20 million to 98 schools.

Other states support private higher education, but not through formula-based aid. Pennsylvania gave about $83 million this year for specific programs at private universities, mostly medical schools.

Virginia gives grants worth $2,217 each to about 17,000 residents attending the state's private colleges. Florida and North Carolina also provide support that goes directly to students attending private colleges.

Maryland private college presidents say that they benefit less than colleges in some states when it comes to capital funding (the state gives them about $6 million a year) and financial aid (their students receive about 20 percent of all financial aid provided by the state). Still, they acknowledge the uniqueness of the Sellinger formula.

"Having been in Pennsylvania and Ohio in higher education, it's great to be here, because Maryland has been a very generous state," said Hood College President Ronald J. Volpe.

Gauging the impact

Limiting the formula to enrollments of Maryland residents would especially affect schools with many out-of-state students, such as Hopkins, Loyola, Goucher College and the Maryland Institute College of Art. College officials say changing the formula might lead schools to recruit less outside the state and adopt a provincial outlook.

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