The debate over college costs

The University: Separating the myths from the reality of higher-education funding in Maryland

November 16, 2003|By William W. Destler

FACTS, AS THEY say, are stubborn things. Unfortunately, there have been scant few facts in recent statements by elected officials or the media in the debate on the funding of public higher education in Maryland. So I offer examples of where reality has yet to meet the road:

Myth: Maryland's public universities and colleges have responded to the recent budget cuts with huge tuition increases rather than working toward greater operating efficiencies.

Reality: The University of Maryland, College Park, for one, has responded to the budget cuts with two tuition increases that will yield only 40 percent of this shortfall. The remaining deficit has been met with aggressive cost-cutting and enhanced efficiencies in operations.

Myth: Tuition at these institutions is higher than the national average because they operate less efficiently than comparable institutions nationwide.

Reality: Tuition is high because state support per student is low. Maryland ranks 42nd among all states in support provided for public higher education per capita, adjusted for average income. Last year, the state ranked 32nd.

Myth: Our public universities and colleges are fat and happy after years of huge budget increases during the Parris N. Glendening administration and therefore are appropriate targets for larger-than-proportional budget reductions during the current fiscal crisis.

Reality: These institutions were still seriously underfunded compared with similar institutions nationwide even at the end of Mr. Glendening's term. The University of Maryland, for example, received funding (tuition plus state funding) of $2,000 per student less than its peer institutions and operated with only 65 percent of the support staff per student of those public universities before the recent budget reductions.

Myth: That our public universities and colleges have taken significant budget cuts without visible disruptions in their academic programs is proof they were overfunded.

Reality: Any obvious public disruption in academic offerings can result in lower enrollments and make a bad fiscal situation worse. For this reason, most institutions have protected their academic programs as much as possible and taken major cuts in student services such as student health centers, state service units such as the Cooperative Extension Service and facilities maintenance (which cannot be sustained for an extended period).

Myth: Our public universities and colleges have too many top-level administrators, and they are compensated excessively.

Reality: The University of Maryland has fewer than the average number of top-level administrators (president, vice presidents, associate vice presidents) of comparable national and regional institutions and lags in average compensation in most cases. The president of UMCP, for example, is compensated at only 57 percent of the salary of the president of the University of Delaware.

Myth: Faculty at our public research universities are overpaid and under-worked.

Reality: Apart from teaching, faculty are responsible for advising, supervision of theses, research, service and grant acquisition. The average faculty member at College Park brings in over $200,000 annually to the university in external funding for research and education programs, of which an average of 22 percent is used to support university operations. Thus, the average faculty member, in effect, pays more than $40,000 of his or her own salary annually. The same is true for faculty at the Baltimore and Baltimore County campuses.

Myth: Our public universities and colleges have been unable to get costs under control for many years, resulting in annual tuition increases well above the Consumer Price Index or other reasonable cost index.

Reality: What they have been mostly unable to control is revenue, not costs. And where costs have increased, it frequently has been because of increased state and federal regulations. State and federal support for public higher education has been declining for more than 20 years, and this, along with the costs of increased regulation, has driven up tuition.

Myth: Maryland taxpayers are subsidizing the education of non-Maryland resident students.

Reality: Non-resident students pay the full cost of education at almost all of our publicly funded colleges and universities, and they have seen significantly larger tuition increases over the last year than have resident students.

Myth: In order to maximize tuition revenue, our public colleges and universities have been steadily increasing the number of out-of-state students enrolled.

Reality: At the University of Maryland, out-of-state enrollment has been declining for four years.

Thousands of Maryland citizens have worked tirelessly over the last 20 years to build a public higher education system worthy of our best high school graduates. Now, in the face of real state budget constraints, we all need to work together to preserve what has been accomplished.

What is needed is responsible leadership - from our elected officials, from the leadership of our public colleges and universities, from the corporate sector and from the media. Only if all contribute will we see our way through these difficult times to an even brighter future for the state and future generations of Maryland citizens.

William W. Destler is the senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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