The debate over college costs

The Politician: It's time to trim the fat

November 16, 2003|By J. Lowell Stoltzfus

THE RECENT round of proposed tuition increases by the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland (USM) has generated great debate.

Unfortunately, the tone has shifted from a reasoned policy discussion to political pressure and hyperbole. Some legislators and student activists blame state leaders, especially Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for tuition increases. A group of students has established a political action committee to advance its goal of pressuring the governor to increase university funding.

Though all Marylanders should want a quality public higher education system that is affordable to all families, state funding is only part of the picture. Cutting costs is essential. USM officials have not dealt sufficiently with the budget crisis from the expenditure side of the ledger.

While all other state agencies are being asked to do more with less, examining the spending side seems to be notably absent at USM. Lack of creative leadership to increase efficiency and reduce spending hurts students and families. Resulting tuition increases lock out more and more students.

Very significant increases in state funding to the university system in recent years are deliberately overlooked by some. The fact is that the general fund support from the state to the university system jumped 36 percent between fiscal years 1995 and 2002. (During one three-year stretch, Maryland taxpayers pumped an additional $145 million into public college campuses.)

One would think that tuition held the line during those years and that students and their families earned a break. But that was not the case. Tuition and mandatory fees at the University of Maryland, College Park, the flagship campus, increased by nearly 40 percent between 1995 and 2002. In fact, tuition and mandatory fee hikes have been imposed on every in-state USM student at every campus every year since 1995.

Where does this money go? A review of state budget data reveals one glaring truth: The university system is top heavy with high-salaried administrative positions.

For example, 75 administrative employees offer "institutional support" at the College Park campus alone. In fiscal year 2003, their salaries ranged from $100,305 to $357,999.

In addition to housing, cars and other perks, college presidents make between $167,094 and $434,228 annually, which is substantially more than the salary of the governor, who earns $137,500.

And then there is the university system office, with a chancellor, two vice chancellors, three assistant vice chancellors, nine associate vice chancellors, and 11 directors who made a combined $3.17 million in salary during fiscal year 2003. Meanwhile, the Maryland Higher Education Commission, another state entity separate from USM but which also has oversight of higher education, has a total of 80 employees earning $4.2 million in salary.

Another opportunity for efficiency is faculty workloads. "The Ninth Annual Report on the Workload of the USM Faculty," prepared by USM, shows that faculty members working in non-research areas has declined slightly since the 1997-1998 school year. During tough fiscal times, it stands to reason that course loads would increase, perhaps by one course per year per professor, in order to keep tuition down.

In the long run, a successful public university system is necessary to deliver an educated work force and a stronger economy in Maryland. But in achieving this worthy goal, taxpayers and those who pay tuition deserve accountability since their dollars mostly pay the bill.

USM advocates should join the call for a systemwide belt-tightening before squeezing more tuition out of students and their families. A more realistic salary structure in top administrative posts and other efficiency efforts would be a great start.

J. Lowell Stoltzfus is the Republican leader of the Maryland Senate and represents Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties.

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