Message to the budget cutters

March 02, 2003

THE UNIVERSITY System of Maryland sent a message last week to the General Assembly: More budget cuts and we might have to light up the no-vacancy sign.

Already reeling under reductions to 2001 levels, system officials fear even deeper cuts, especially if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s plan for slot machine gambling isn't passed. So they've wisely directed each of the 11 campuses to "develop alternative enrollment projections." The phrase "enrollment cap" appears nowhere in the directive, but that's what will be in store if lawmakers and the governor keep drawing down the university system to balance the state budget.

Maryland system Chancellor William E. Kirwan calls an enrollment cap a "worst-case scenario." Indeed, the last thing a taxpayer-supported university wants to do is shut its doors on students who qualify for admission. But the system already has ordered furloughs, frozen hiring and taken the unprecedented step of raising tuition at midyear, with another hefty increase in the offing next fall. If the crisis isn't resolved, an enrollment cap is the only way to ensure continuation of high-quality programs.

Public colleges and universities in Maryland, and this includes community colleges, are hit by a double whammy: Their enrollments are burgeoning while their budgets are shrinking. College Park is the only campus that limits undergraduate enrollment, but the other 10 campuses in the university system expect to grow by 14,000 to 20,000 full-time students over the next decade. That's the equivalent of a Towson University.

In colleges and universities, quality erodes quietly, almost imperceptibly. First there are larger classes, fewer student services and deferred maintenance. Library hours are cut back. Part-time instructors who keep no office hours replace full-time professors. Faculty become dispirited and depart for states, such as North Carolina and Virginia, that Maryland emulates. Eventually, graduation and retention rates are affected.

The alternative is to limit enrollment and maintain quality. It's a gamble that could backfire if the system throws it in the faces of lawmakers as payback for budget slashing. That's what happened last spring in Wisconsin, where the Board of Regents abruptly halted admissions in a budget dispute not unlike Maryland's this year. All heck broke loose as legislators and the governor heard from constituents whose college plans were shattered overnight. The freeze lasted all of two weeks. Maryland's more subtle approach, with each campus carefully crafting an enrollment plan to meet its needs, is wiser.

Generously supported through most of the 1990s, Maryland's public colleges and universities are finally nudging into the first rank of their peers nationally. If Maryland must limit enrollment to stay there, so be it.

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