States' pact cuts college expenses

River Hill grad gets break on tuition from program

Howard County

February 02, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

By the time freshman Billy Hickey graduates from Middle Tennessee State University, his parents say, they will have saved more than $30,000, solely because they took advantage of a seldom-used pact that lets Maryland students pay in-state tuition at out-of-state schools.

"We figured it out to be about $7,000 or $8,000 [saved] per year," said Billy's mother, Rosemary Hickey - and that's just in tuition. Savings in fees, dorm and meal-plan expenses add up to another few thousand dollars.

"It's going to enable us to get him that car that he's been lobbying for all semester," she said.

About 150 schools in 16 Southern states participate in the partnership, called the Academic Common Market. It allows nonresidents to enroll in specific degree programs at in-state tuition prices if the programs are not offered in a student's home state.

"It's a way of sharing programs, reducing costs and avoiding duplication," said John Sabatini, assistant secretary for planning and academic affairs at the Maryland Higher Education Commission

The program started in 1974. It is based on the idea that schools featuring distinctive majors - such as interior design, meteorology and wildlife management - can fill seats by drawing from outside their traditional student population and, in turn, diversify their student body.

It also saves money for those state schools because they do not have to replicate programs available at participating colleges and universities elsewhere.

But the singularity of the majors and the obscurity of Academic Common Market keep participation low. Last fall, only 82 students from Maryland went to schools on ACM tuition agreements.

"There aren't that many obscure majors that most kids are interested in," said Lynne Muller, the Baltimore County public school system's guidance supervisor. "And most of our students know a lot about the local colleges, but they may not know about the ones in Georgia or Alabama."

The other 12 states involved in the venture - which offers Marylanders a combined 152 baccalaureate and graduate degree options - are Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

Featured schools include South Carolina's Clemson University, Texas A&M University, Virginia Tech and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Billy Hickey chose Middle Tennessee even before he knew about the Academic Common Market.

He wants to be a music engineer or producer. During high school, he ran a recording studio out of the basement of his parents' Clarksville home, churning out professional-quality compact discs for everything from local bands to a fellow River Hill High student's college audition tape.

But when it came time for him to choose a college, he could not find a local school with a suitable recording industry major. He found Middle Tennessee, though, which offers a program and is conveniently situated outside a musical hotbed: Nashville.

"This was my favorite school from the start," Billy said. "I wasn't going to choose another school, but when we found out about [ACM], it was definitely a nice little perk."

His parents think so, too.

"It was a bonus," Rosemary Hickey said. "We were lucky enough that we had the money to send him to college. But I could see where it would be really great if we didn't and had to think about how we were going to pay for school."

The Hickeys opened a college savings account for each of their children shortly after their births and faithfully contributed to them from every paycheck. But for those less able to put enough money away, the common market could be a welcome relief.

"We have to make sure we inform our parents and students that there are some really good buys out there for colleges and universities if you're willing to go out of state," said Diane Finch, Anne Arundel County public schools' coordinator for guidance and counseling. "They have to at least think about the options, even if they think they can't afford it."

The Hickeys' careful planning and newfound savings will help Billy in the long run, though, by starting him off with a nest egg.

"When he graduates, he might have some money left over," Rosemary Hickey said. "His sister's graduating this spring [from Radford University in Virginia], and she's just eking out her last dollar."

Information: www.sreb.org/programs/acm/acmindex.asp.

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