The debate over college costs

The Public: United against tuition hikes

November 16, 2003|By Patrick Gonzales

RESULTS OF polling Marylanders about how they feel about tuition increases at the state's public universities show that politicians have their work cut out for them in trying to find another way to meet the rising costs of higher education.

A telephone poll was conducted of over 800 Maryland voters during the third week of October, providing a margin of error in the results of plus or minus 3.5 percent. The wording of the specific question was:

"As a result of state budget cuts, it has been proposed that tuition at Maryland's public universities be substantially increased. One proposal calls for a doubling of tuition over the next five years. Do you favor or oppose this approach?"

The response was an overwhelming no, with 83 percent expressing opposition.

And when we looked at key breakdowns within the total population, including party affiliation, gender and race, there was little variation in the level of opposition.

Without a concerted effort to make the case for why tuition should be doubled, this does not look like an idea whose time has come. And in the days since the poll was released, there have been a number of public statements, including by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., expressing concern about tuition increases.

It is worth trying to dig a little deeper on this issue to try to understand what the poll tells us and what it does not tell us. The specific proposal to double tuition was made by Richard E. Hug, Mr. Ehrlich's chief fund-raiser during the gubernatorial campaign last year and his first appointee to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

The question was worded in such a way as to try to elicit a reaction to Mr. Hug's idea. He has made the case that higher tuition levels tend to be associated with more prestigious universities and has offered that as a principal reason for his proposal. What we cannot tell from these polling results is whether respondents rejected his reasoning or whether they had not heard his argument and were reacting to the numbers alone.

But the issue is even more complex. Even before Mr. Hug's comments on the desirability of high tuition rates, the Board of Regents had authorized a number of increases, including a midyear one in the previous academic year. Those increases were in response to significant reductions in state appropriations to public higher education. Our question cited those reductions, but did not probe to ask respondents about the link between budget cuts and tuition increases.

And even that issue has additional layers to it.

One that has become increasingly apparent in the public discussions is who is responsible for the large tuition increases. Is it the Board of Regents, which took the formal action, or is it Mr. Ehrlich, who made the decisions on budget cuts that forced the regents to find other revenues to balance university budgets? The governor, who has taken a firm stand against tax increases, does not want to be seen as having created a de facto tax increase for citizens sending their children to public universities.

Values and priorities are also in play. How important is public higher education to Maryland citizens? Would the public like to see smaller tuition increases, smaller cuts to public funding and a reduction in some other area, such as the $1.3 billion Thornton formula for elementary and secondary education? Would the public be willing to pay more in taxes if that was the only way to fund higher education and other programs at a level that it wanted?

We elect public officials to frame difficult choices and to explain them to us. But we also hold them accountable for the results. Tuition increases are not playing well. Who is responsible and what are the alternatives need to be worked out in the political process. The polling data tell us that there is a problem with the solution being proposed.

It's time to try again and see how the public responds to a different alternative.

Patrick Gonzales is president of Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, a public opinion polling firm based in Annapolis.

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