Spinning wheels

May 27, 2004

MARYLAND'S leaders have been running in place instead of making the tough decisions necessary to keep higher education affordable and accessible. So it's notable that yesterday, just a day after the governor vetoed lawmakers' well-intended but underfunded plan to cap tuition and replenish the previously slashed higher-education budget, a new round of public hearings on higher education began.

There have been hearings aplenty already, by the University System of Maryland regents, by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, by the General Assembly - and the facts have not changed: The public colleges are still reeling from the loss of more than $143 million, cut to help balance the state budget, since 2002. Since then, tuition at public two- and four-year colleges has soared. At University System of Maryland colleges, tuition will rise again this fall, by at least 10 percent.

While supporters of the tuition-cap legislation continue lobbying for a legislative override of the veto, the most the Ehrlich administration has given parents and taxpayers to date is an IOU.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. owes Marylanders an agenda for higher education. Despite studies projecting that Maryland will have trouble accommodating all of its college-bound students through the decade - and evidence that many already are priced out of college - there's no recovery plan. There's also no agreement on how to manage the market forces buffeting college costs.

Restoring lost funding wouldn't solve the problem, and neither would capping tuition. Although that might appease parents and voters in the short term, it wouldn't stabilize spending or lay a foundation for growth.

But doing it right will require an unaccustomed level of cooperation, compromise and creativity from competing interests, and firm leadership. It will require rethinking both the state's financial commitment to higher education and the individual colleges' investments in faculty and programs. It will mean smoothing the transfer path from community college to four-year programs, and expanding alternatives such as online schooling. It must mean forging stronger ties with the state's high schools, to ensure students are ready for college-level work, because remediation is expensive. It may mean capping enrollment at some colleges.

The question is: Is Maryland ready to do it right? Yesterday's public hearing was convened by a new panel of Maryland leaders who will advise the governor and the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Its leader, former Coppin State College President Calvin W. Burnett, the governor's nominee for secretary of higher education, is best known for his gentlemanliness; whether that will be an asset or a handicap in this role remains to be seen.

To be considered successful, this panel must produce more than a wish list of worthy goals: It must outline an action plan that demonstrates the Ehrlich administration's commitment to higher education.

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