With tuition rise, students are ones who'll pay

October 14, 2003|By Michael Olesker

COLLEGE PARK - Sarah Brown-Whale comes to this University of Maryland campus out of Carroll County's Hampstead, where her parents are pastors of the United Methodist Church. Now her education plans are translated to prayer. The University System of Maryland wishes to raise tuition once again, and for thousands of students not rolling in money, the news is spat like a curse.

Brown-Whale, 20, is a junior majoring in history. Before the current crisis, she talked of studying abroad, of internships and graduate school. Her eyes light up about Latin American archaeology. She used to dream of going to Peru to study the Incas.

Now she refigures everything. Just months after a 20 percent tuition increase - one of the biggest in the nation - students across the state face a second increase that Board of Regents members acknowledge could be as much as another 20 percent for most of the university system's 11 campuses.

With the board expected to vote this week, Brown-Whale sits in her Harford Hall dormitory room with her roommate Meggie Tortolero, a sophomore biology major from Columbia whose father works for Home Depot and mother cleans homes. Tortolero wants to work in pediatrics. Thus, the traditional snapshot of the American dream, where education improves the lives of each new generation. But this generation is now offered a rendezvous with disappointment.

"My parents and I can't afford this," Brown-Whale says. "A lot of people can't afford this. It's freaking me out."

"It's like they really don't want you to go to college," Tortolero says. "Don't they understand the concept of `public' education? It's supposed to be for everyone - not just rich people."

In a country where the gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and the middle class struggles to keep its head above water while the rich get tax breaks, such words resonate. An editorial in the campus newspaper The Diamondback, headlined "Ehrlich's Cronies," declares:

"Instead of promoting the best interests of students and state residents, the [Board of Regents] decided to promote the best interest of one resident - Gov. Bob Ehrlich. ... No debate. No outrage. No criticism. Barely a reference to working-class Maryland residents and students on a board made up of millionaire businessmen and former politicos. ... The regents must represent Maryland's working class, not Ehrlich's caviar class."

Beyond the governor, such anger is aimed first at Richard E. Hug. He was Ehrlich's chief campaign fund-raiser and one of the governor's first appointees to the Board of Regents. For months, Hug has argued for doubling state tuition over the next five years. He says it could bring $600 million into the university system. There is an alternative to this - increasing state funding for the university system. But Ehrlich says he'll hold state funding exactly where it is.

At Harford Hall, Brown-Whale and Tortolero roll their eyes at the arithmetic. Brown-Whale has a brother, Peter, studying to be a veterinarian here. Thus, another tuition jump. Tortolero has a brother graduating high school next spring. Thus, one more tuition jump on the way.

"We want to do something with our lives," Tortolero says now, curling up on a small dormitory couch. "And this is like them saying, `No, we want you to go into the world with a high school diploma.'"

This is about more than money, though money lies at the heart of it. For all the talk of Maryland's troubled economy, it is part of a national trend. In California, such financial troubles helped spark a gubernatorial recall. But this is also about a philosophy: Does a state offer all its citizens a ticket to the good life, or only those who can afford it?

On the Board of Regents Web site, the answer seems to be clear. In its own words, which now have the sound of great emptiness: "We are committed to ensuring broad access to the system's academic programs. ...We are committed to seeing that the [University System of Maryland] continues to meet the need of all Marylanders through research and service activities that make this state a better place to live, work, and learn."

"Broad" access to the system?

Meet the needs of "all" Marylanders?

"This is gonna make it very tough," Brown-Whale says, sitting in her dormitory room. "They're gonna lose a lot of people with this one. A lot of people just won't be able to afford it."

"I've already taken out one student loan," says Tortolero, 19. "Here we go again."

At its best, this College Park campus can be a lovely place. The other day, in front of McKeldin Library, a crowd of nearly a hundred kids gathered to watch a comic improvisational theater troupe perform. In one bit, two priests prepared to sky-dive. The laughter came from a simple premise: The priests could bless themselves all they wanted, but it was still a leap into the darkness.

A lot of this state's college students understand that sinking feeling precisely.

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