UM tuition increases spur activism on campuses

October 24, 2003|By Michael Olesker

LET THEM all talk about red ink on the way to their limousines. Let the governor named Ehrlich and his money man Hug blame it on the previous governor, named Glendening, who spent with both hands, because it helps them shift the political blame. But then let them tell Tim Daly how middle-class kids are supposed to pay for a college education around here.

While the politicians and the Board of Regents feign helplessness over the new University of Maryland tuition increases and employ the bloodless language of economics, Daly attempts something we haven't seen in maybe three decades. He's trying to rouse ticked-off students (and their parents) from a 30-year political sleep.

Daly is the student government president of the University of Maryland, College Park. He is also chairman of a brand-new political action committee, Student Citizens Action Network, formed to embrace students at all 11 of Maryland's public colleges.

This week, displaying zero subtlety with language, the group denounced Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as "Public Enemy No. 1." Then they called his bluff on taxes. Raising tuition, said Daly, is just another word for a tax increase.

Daly knows. He is 22 years old and borrowing everything he can from banks to pay for his education. His parents are divorced, his mother unable to help much financially. One semester Daly had to drop out of school and work full time until he had enough money to come back.

"I understand how the game is played," he says. He was between talks with student leaders at Towson and Salisbury and Frostburg State universities, and at UMBC and the University of Maryland Law School.

They're all part of the university system where tuition was raised last year by about 20 percent and last week was hit by additional jumps ranging from Coppin State's 6 percent to College Park's 11 percent - hikes that merely hint at additional increases proposed by Richard Hug, formerly Ehrlich's chief political fund-raiser and now his man on the Board of Regents.

Hug has called for doubling tuition levels. Ehrlich has kept his verbal distance from such pronouncements, trying to duck all incoming flak and hoping no one notices that Hug sits on the governor's lap. The two of them blame $120 million in state higher-education cuts on the $1.2 billion budget shortfall Ehrlich inherited when he took office.

This goes back to the spending habits of Gov. Parris Glendening. It is a fact that Glendening overspent when the economy was tanking and he knew he was about to blow town. It is also a fact that Maryland is like almost every other state in the country, wondering how to pay its bills.

But there is one more salient fact: Most states have chosen not to pass these burdens so heavily onto the backs of their young people - and for Ehrlich, a high-profile son of working-class people whose college education came from scholarships, it seems an odd psychological split from people with whom he should identify. Instead, he finds himself portrayed as a version of Bush Lite, protecting the wealthy on taxes while the middle class takes another hit.

"This is for real," Tim Daly was saying now. He meant his political action committee. He said there are "a few hundred" students already active. It harks back to another era.

Three decades ago, campuses throbbed with political activism. Students rallied against the war in Vietnam, against institutionalized racism and sexism. The issues directly touched their lives. When the issues drifted away, so did most student activism.

"This might have brought it back," House Speaker Michael Busch was saying this week. "And I'm glad to see it. This is one that hits home. Thirty years ago, when I was in college, the issues were about equal opportunities for black people and for women. Now it's about access to a quality of life. Do we offer it to all people, or just the financially elite?"

Busch, who battled Ehrlich last winter over slot machines, announced formation of a legislative committee to study the state's higher-education affordability - in the same week it was revealed that nearly 900 Morgan State University students were dropped from the rolls after they couldn't raise tuition money or financial aid.

"The whole purpose of public education," Busch said, "is to create an equity for working- and middle-class families who can't afford the elite schools. Take College Park. You need 1,360 on your boards to get in now. They had 25,000 applicants for 4,000 freshman vacancies. And who's going there? Last year, [College Park] attracted half of the valedictorians from Maryland's public high schools. They were kids from middle-class backgrounds, looking for an affordable quality education."

Ehrlich's defenders point to the tough economy- and to the budget troubles left by Glendening. Busch says otherwise.

"Every state in the union's got problems," he said. "It's a national issue. In the last three years, we've gone from a $260 billion surplus to a $600 million deficit. In Washington, they just print more money. So they're putting the burden on the states, and the states have mandates to balance their budgets. The question is, do we place that burden on middle-class families? They're carrying the tax burden.

"The one great hope of the middle class is that they can go to neighborhoods that have good public schools. And, if their kids get a decent education there, and if they save their money, they can get to an affordable college. Instead, we have tax breaks for the wealthy, and the middle class taking all the pressure."

And a 22-year-old named Tim Daly now looking to take a 30-year-old sense of student activism out of mothballs.

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