Boom or bust

November 06, 2003

WE SYMPATHIZE with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s urge to cap tuition at Maryland's public colleges and universities. As tempting as that may be, however, the wiser course is to resist and call for a comprehensive overhaul of University System of Maryland spending.

Despite eliminating more than 600 positions, many of which were on the books but vacant, the state's regents have failed to shake the public's perception that the university system remains comfortable. Perhaps it is the apparent good health of selected college programs, the high salaries paid to big-name faculty and ranking administrators, and a continuing building boom that piles on to operating costs. Perhaps it's the appearance of some colleges' luxuries at a time when the economy has flagged and the state is struggling.

Tuition caps might put a dressing on the problem, but historically they haven't cured what's really ailing the system. Regulating tuition's rise while holding state allocations steady might force the system in the short term to seek additional cost savings that affect classrooms instead of administration or operations, but it won't streamline operations. And neither will shoving the immediate shortfall off on parents, who view unanticipated tuition hikes as a tax.

Together, those who control state budgets and university budgets are going to have to make a bed and lie in it.

Look at the history: The regents themselves pledged to hold increases to 4 percent for four years, imposing on themselves a cap. That was fine when the economy was in good shape, but they couldn't maintain it when times got tough. In the interim, if they improved at economizing, they failed to tell that story well; after all, that conflicts with their preferred story about the colleges striving for world-class status and increasing the value of their diplomas.

Since 1988, the year the state university system as we know it was organized, three trends have held constant: The institutions overall have improved in quality; enrollment, staff size and building stock have grown; tuition and fees, in lean times as well as lush, have risen - so much that they are now the No. 1 source of revenue for operations and expansion.

What's needed now is not a political rap on the knuckles, a wake-up call or an arbitrary cap on tuition, but a joint effort by the policy-makers and the regents to keep Maryland's fine public colleges affordable for middle-class students, accessible to the poor with financial aid, and within the state's means.

The state's commitment to higher education must remain strong, but it may be necessary for the regents to postpone some of the desired growth. They may have to consolidate some programs. This would not hurt the drive to be world-class. Rather, it would show a lot of class at a time when the so-called jobless recovery affects parents' dreams for their college-bound children.

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