Colleges facing funding decision

Without cash infusion, UM in a bind, officials say

Limit enrollment or raise tuition

April 12, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Unless Maryland once again pumps a lot more money into higher education, state university system officials said yesterday, students will face one of two barriers in 10 years: far higher tuition or a limit on admission.

In a wide-ranging Board of Regents meeting at Towson University, University System of Maryland officials warned that the continued enrollment rise at public colleges has presented the state with a clear dilemma.

To accommodate the expected growth, they said, Maryland has to return to the kind of large increases in state support the system enjoyed before the economic downturn, raise tuition to prohibitively high levels, or start turning away students.

"This is a major public policy issue, and not one we can determine by ourselves," said David H. Nevins, chairman of the regents' finance committee. "Our success has brought us a lot of challenges, and we are going to need a place for the college-ready kids of hardworking Marylanders to go to school."

The system is grappling with a $67 million cut -- or roughly 8 percent this year -- in its state funding for this year and next. Those reductions are being absorbed mainly through a midyear tuition increase, layoffs and staff furloughs.

But yesterday's debate underscored that the system's long-term problems could be even worse if the economic situation doesn't improve soon.

The system's latest enrollment projections call for its 11 campuses to expect a 25 percent increase in enrollment in the next 10 years, or about 25,000 full-time students. The growth is due to the demographic trend known as the baby boom echo, the increasing rate of high school graduates attending college and the rising popularity of the state's schools.

According to an analysis presented yesterday by Vice Chancellor Joseph Vivona, that enrollment growth will result in a steep increase in the system's costs over the next 10 years. If the state wants to support its colleges at the same level as their peer institutions around the country, the system's budget would have to grow by 50 percent, or $900 million, by 2013.

To pay for a 50 percent budget increase over 10 years, the state has several options, Vivona said. It could hold tuition increases at 4 percent a year, as it did before the current slowdown, and increase taxpayer support for colleges by 8.5 percent a year. Without such yearly boosts in funding, he said, annual tuition increases would surpass 10 percent.

Even if the state was content to fund its schools at levels lower than their peers', as it does today, the system's budget would still be $600 million more in 2013, Vivona said. The state would need to increase taxpayer support by 5 percent a year to keep tuition increases at 4 percent.

Finally, he said, a third option existed: The state could limit enrollment to 100,000 full-time students, thereby turning away 15,000 students who would have to go to two-year colleges or private colleges or leave the state.

Regent William T. Wood noted that there is another possibility: The system could become more cost-efficient.

He said he worries that the system's habit of measuring its success by how much funding it receives in relation to its peers discourages it from seeking efficiencies.

"The board should concentrate on encouraging the system to become leaner and maintain quality at the same time," Wood said.

It was a good suggestion, Nevins said, but the board would have to take it up some other time.

In other business, the regents approved large increases in dormitory rates at several system schools.

Housing costs will increase by 6 percent at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; by 5.7 percent at the University of Maryland, College Park; and by 5 percent at Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.

The only regent to question the increases was the student regent, J. Andrew Canter, a UM senior. "This is the major student issue of the day," he said.

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