The trouble with tuition

October 12, 2003

HERE WE go again:

The University System of Maryland regents have fired a volley at state lawmakers with middle- and lower-income students caught in the crossfire. The regents' finance panel has proposed a tuition hike for next year of at least 10 percent. The chancellor says it may have to be higher than that, if the state colleges don't receive a supplement to their anticipated state allocation.

The state has told the system to plan on getting no increase in its $746 million budget, but also to expect salaries to rise 2.5 percent. Another year of double-digit tuition increases now appears inevitable.

Yet while regents and the Ehrlich administration appear intent on relying on families to pay an increasing share of the cost of maintaining the state colleges, both have failed to give those same families assurances that state leaders are doing more than running on the same old budget treadmill.

What's missing here is a progressive and reform-minded master plan embracing a vision that can be endorsed by parents, state lawmakers and education leaders to make the colleges the best Maryland can afford for them to be.

This year, for the first time, students and their families cover a greater share of the cost of higher education (47 percent) than does the state's allocation (43 percent).

Meanwhile, in an economy that has pinched families' wallets and at a time when more people than ever are seeking admission to college, shifting the greater burden onto families has created an increase in the demand for financial aid. The waiting list for state aid administered by the Maryland Higher Education Commission doubled this fall to more than 9,200 students, left over after $39 million was distributed to more than 24,000 others.

Another double-digit tuition hike on top of a flat or declining state allocation would only create more need, and push up the families' share of higher-ed costs.

In coming weeks, the regents will be considering a measure that would permit each college to set, and more or less lock in, tuition and yearly inflationary increases; each entering class could have its own four-year schedule of potential rates. This would offer parents a bit more predictability, provided, of course, that it is not thwarted by wildly fluctuating state allocations, and therein lies the unresolved problem: The state colleges find themselves in a predicament, squeezed between increasing costs, increasing enrollments and a flat state contribution. Certainly, longer-term, bigger-scale efficiencies are needed, beyond the postponing of hires and increasing of class sizes accomplished to date, which greatly affect the quality of education.

Ultimately, state lawmakers and higher-education leaders must strive for a consensus and a 5-year or 10-year master plan, agreeing on the optimum division of the tab, how best to ensure access to the neediest students, and how fast state schools should grow to accommodate the thousands of people desiring to enroll.

No additional tuition hikes should be approved until this Gordian knot is untied.

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