Don't balance budget on students' backs

February 06, 2003|By Jim Rosapepe

WHEN TIMES are tough, we expect to tighten our belts. That's as true in government or business as it is in our own families.

We also expect, or at least hope, that sacrifice will be shared in ways that are smart and fair.

During our last recession 10 years ago, every part of Maryland's budget was on the table for cuts - local aid, higher education, open space, state agencies and entitlements. Not this year.

Faced with midyear budget cuts of nearly $100 million, the University System of Maryland recently decided to boost tuition by 5 percent. The state's universities are being forced to carry more than three times their fair share of the budget cuts. One statistic from the legislature's fiscal staff tells the story:

Higher education is less than 10 percent of the state's general fund budget, but it has to take nearly one-third of this year's budget cuts. That doesn't include the $29 million the state wants to take from the university system's reserve fund, which is needed to back bonds issued to build classroom buildings and laboratories.

Why are Maryland's middle-class students and parents being asked to carry such a disproportionate share of the load? Because big areas of the budget, such as local government aid and entitlements, have not been cut.

For example, state support for the university system will be about $65 million less this year than last. But local government aid is up more than $200 million. This is particularly striking considering that the property tax base, on which local governments rely heavily for revenue, is up more than 5 percent this year.

The redirection of taxpayer dollars from higher education to other spending is to be continued in fiscal year 2004. The current budget would increase total state spending - $364 million more (a 10.4 percent hike) for local governments, $173 million more (a 9.5 percent increase) for entitlements and $123 million more (a 3 percent increase) for state agencies.

And for our college students? Virtually zero.

Why does this matter?

First, for students and their families, tuition increases mean money out of their pockets at a time of economic difficulty. Tuition and fees for the average student have jumped more than 6.6 percent a year in the past decade, considerably above the rate of inflation. This year's cuts and previous years of underfunding have left the state universities much more dependent on tuition and fees than they were a decade ago.

Then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the legislature created the University System of Maryland in 1988 and committed to offering our young people a world-class education at affordable prices. That commitment, and the funds behind it, has paid off.

Today, more Marylanders than ever are prepared for, and choosing, public colleges and universities in our state. That means more state investment is needed each year, even if the cost per student is stable or declining. The alternative is that Maryland colleges deny admission to qualified Maryland taxpayers and their children.

Second, education is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Maryland leads the nation in the number of adults with bachelor's degrees or higher, contributing to the nation's highest family income. We rank fourth in the Milken Institute's State Technology and Science Index, based on investment in science and technology, including higher education and research. One result: University system research grants and contracts reached $895 million last year, a two-year increase of $225 million.

The legislature created an objective system in 1999 to measure the adequacy of our investment in higher education. It created funding guidelines to compare Maryland's spending (both tuition and taxpayer dollars) for our public colleges with that of our peer institutions in other states. For example, it compares our support for Towson University students with that for University of North Carolina, Charlotte students, and ours for College Park students with that for University of California, Los Angeles students.

The goal was to reach 100 percent of the funding guideline for each of our campuses. While there were variations by campus, by 2001 we had reached 88 percent for the system as a whole. This year's budget cuts, combined with last week's tuition hike, push us back to 75 percent, a level lower than when the guidelines were set in 2000. So this year's budget rolls us back five years.

Why is investment in higher education being cut to pay for higher levels of government spending for local governments, entitlements and state agencies?

Jim Rosapepe was vice chair of the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee from 1995 to 1997 and now serves on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

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