Judge refuses to halt UM tuition increase

Ruling on students' suit is expected next month

March 04, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge turned down a request yesterday to temporarily halt a midyear tuition increase by the University System of Maryland, but said he will rule on the legality of the increase next month.

Judge Stuart R. Berger's decision was in response to a class action lawsuit by seven students protesting a 5 percent increase at most system schools. The students say the increase - up to $557 for some - violated their agreement with their schools by raising, at the last minute, the cost of enrolling for the spring semester.

While the additional cost has caused "significant harm" for some students, Berger said, it has not caused such irreparable damage to justify a preliminary injunction. Instead, he said, he will rule on the case next month. If he finds that the increase is illegal, students who have paid would get a refund.

The lawsuit, brought by students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the University of Baltimore, could throw the university system's finances into further disarray. Schools are counting on about $13 million from the tuition increase to help overcome $67 million in cuts to this year's budget.

If successful, the lawsuit could serve as a national precedent for challenges to midyear increases.

At issue are two questions: whether tuition rates posted at the outset of a school year amount to a contract with students, and whether the system gave sufficient notice in raising rates for the spring term.

Chancellor William E. Kirwan sent a letter Jan. 8 alerting students to the possibility of a midyear increase. The Board of Regents approved the change Jan. 23, when some spring classes had already begun.

Deborah Thompson Eisenberg, a lawyer for the students, told Berger that this was insufficient notice for students who had enrolled for this semester based on rates given at the start of the school year.

"The bottom line is, a surprise surcharge would not be tolerated in the private marketplace and it should not be tolerated here," she said.

Assistant Attorney General John Anderson countered that officials alerted students as soon as they realized another budget cut was likely. He questioned whether tuition rates given at the school year's outset are a fixed contract, noting that some university literature states that rates are changeable.

Anderson said the lawsuit overstated the effect of the increase, since most in-state undergraduates are paying about $100 more. Out-of-state undergraduates are paying up to $333 more and some professional students are paying an additional fee of more than $500.

"I believe there is no student who can't get a supplemental loan to pay" the charge, Anderson said. "This increase would not add much debt for most students."

This irked one plaintiff, law student Jodi Stern, who said her $557 increase is forcing her to reconsider taking a nonpaying Legal Aid job this semester.

"I planned my budget ... so I'd know how much I could spend each month," she said. "This is unacceptable."

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