Don't mess with Sellinger

February 07, 2003

OF THE 27 states that provide public aid to independent colleges, Maryland is among the most generous. The state's 18 private colleges and universities get $43 million a year in unrestricted aid.

That's a tempting pot of money for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his budget cutters, who have proposed reducing taxpayer support for private colleges by more than half. This comes at a time when the state's public colleges and universities have seen their budgets slashed to 1991 levels and have had to impose a midyear tuition increase.

The private schools should swallow at least as much bitter medicine as the publics. But a 51 percent cut seems extreme, and the way Governor Ehrlich proposes to do it is ill-advised.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial on Friday said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed a 51 percent cut in aid to private colleges and universities in 2004. The proposal, which the governor is considering, came from the General Assembly's legislative services staff. The Sun regrets the error.

The formula, named for the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, former president of Loyola College, dates to 1972, when a couple of private schools had folded and others were in desperate straits. But the state has been aiding private colleges and their students since it granted a charter to Washington College in 1782 and St. John's College two years later.

The argument has never changed: These schools and their graduates contribute mightily to the economic and intellectual well-being of the state.

Last year, $1 of every $28 in the state's economy was generated by an independent college. These schools were responsible for a whopping 90,000 jobs in Maryland last year alone. Private college graduates tend to remain in Maryland. With their degrees, they earn higher salaries and pay higher taxes. Many enter health care and public service professions. Two Baltimore City institutions, Johns Hopkins and the College of Notre Dame, send 420 newly minted teachers into Maryland schools each year.

The Sellinger formula has two attractive features. First, it's linked to the formula for public funding, meaning private and public boats rise and fall on the same tide. Officials from both sectors go hand-in-hand to seek funding in Annapolis, and there's little public squabbling. Second, the current formula gives equal weight to all students, both Marylanders and those who live out-of-state. Mr. Ehrlich would save $22 million by not counting the outsiders, but they should remain in the formula. Maryland is a "debtor" state: It exports more students than it takes in. A policy that rewards schools for recruiting from afar encourages diversity and discourages provincialism.

Dropping out-of-state students from the formula seems targeted at Hopkins, which would lose two-thirds of its aid. And Hopkins is rich enough to take such a hit. But a 70 percent reduction at the Maryland Institute College of Art would be a serious blow.

None of this is to say the independent schools shouldn't share in the pain of state belt-tightening. In fact, their aid already has been cut twice in the general reductions experienced by all state agencies.

The Assembly may want to reduce Sellinger's overall share of state aid. But changing the formula so it no longer counts nonresident students is unwise public policy.

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