Md. oversight panel rebukes colleges for rising tuition costs

Public institutions urged to shift more aid to needy, try harder to cut waste

November 20, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In an unusual rebuke, the Maryland Higher Education Commission urged the state's public universities yesterday to do more to hold down college costs by targeting financial aid to poor students and trying harder to cut waste.

"We call on institutions to direct more of their institutional aid to needy students and make every effort to moderate tuition increases by operating as efficiently and effectively as possible," the commission declared in a unanimous resolution released after a meeting in Annapolis.

The statement caused a stir in the state's higher education community, coming from a panel that usually advocates for the institutions it oversees, rather than criticizes them. The unpaid, 12-member commission is appointed by the governor to coordinate policy among all the state's colleges, private and public.

The resolution arrives at a time when public universities and lawmakers are locked in a tense debate over college costs. Tuition increased about 20 percent at Maryland's public colleges this fall and could go up that much again next year.

University officials have blamed the increases on more than $120 million in state funding cuts. Colleges have done all they could to reduce spending without hurting quality, they say.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has argued that colleges share responsibility for the tuition increases, saying they haven't done enough to cut wasteful spending.

For the commission that represents higher education in state government now to fault the universities - rather than lawmakers - for the tuition increases introduces a new dynamic to the debate.

The panel, which oversees a paid staff of about 60, is a mix of members appointed by Ehrlich and his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening. It includes several former higher education leaders, including retired Towson University President Hoke L. Smith and Donald J. Slowinski, the former president of Essex Community College.

The commission's paid staff has been identified by some lawmakers as a place for potential savings. Some critics say its oversight duties overlap with those of the University System of Maryland's central office.

Slowinski said yesterday that the commission was not satisfied with the public colleges' claims that they have cut costs.

"The only statement we receive from them is, `We're doing everything we can to be efficient,'" he said. "What the commission is asking for is specific information on specific efficiencies: `What are the specific things you have done to moderate these tuition increases?'"

Janice Doyle, the commission's assistant secretary for finance policy, said panel members were upset that of the $70 million in financial aid given by public colleges last year, $53 million was based on academic or athletic merit, with the remainder based on need.

State universities Chancellor William E. Kirwan said last night that the system is trying to set aside more money for need-based aid. "We've got to be vigilant in ensuring an appropriate balance between the two," he said.

But Kirwan rejected the claim that college inefficiencies, rather than budget cuts, are to blame for tuition increases. "We most definitely can't get to where we need to go ... without additional state support," he said. "Anyone who thinks that's possible doesn't understand reality."

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