COLLEGE PARK - Holding candles and chanting "Save our school," nearly 1,000 students took part in a rally here last night asking Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to include more funding for state public universities in his next budget.
"We are here in the dark, we are here in the cold to plead with our governor to fund us correctly," Aaron Kraus, president of the student government, yelled to the crowd from a raised stage on McKeldin Mall at the center of the University of Maryland's flagship campus.
The state university system has not received a funding increase from the state in two years. To help pay rising costs, the system has increased tuition by nearly 30 percent over that time. Students at the University of Maryland, College Park pay about $17,000 annually in tuition and fees, making it one of the nation's most expensive public schools of higher learning.
The students are hoping that more money in the budget for higher education would slow tuition increases. The governor is to submit his budget to the General Assembly in January.
Several legislators and James C. Rosapepe, a member of the system's board of regents, told the students last night that they will press the governor and other state officials for more money.
"You're in a very real crisis," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
"As legislators, we will work with the governor to find funding sources," said state Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat whose district includes the College Park area.
Chancellor William E. Kirwan, who was not present, has had several meetings with Ehrlich and has said he believes the governor will provide more funding. But Kirwan has also said university officials are planning budgets as if they will not receive more state funds this year - which could result in tuition rising by 14 percent more.
Linda West, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which oversees the state's financial aid packages, said yesterday: "The governor is committed to higher education and welcomes input from students."
But West added that the state has many budget needs, and it is unclear how much, if any, increase the system would receive.
System officials have been reducing expenses on their 11 campuses. Regents recently released a report with recommendations that include increasing faculty workloads and encouraging students to graduate more quickly. They estimated the changes could save the system nearly $27 million next year.
Many students at the rally said they have been hurt by rising tuition. Amy Follett, a sophomore from Rockville, said she worked two summer jobs to earn more money for school. "It puts a lot of stress on your education," she said.
Kraus said the university's academic reputation is suffering under fiscal constraints.
In the latest U.S. News and World Report college rankings, the University of Maryland, College Park fell one spot, to No. 18, among U.S. public universities.
"Everyone here [at the rally] did not want to invest in a B-level university," said Kraus, who along with the legislators urged students to stay involved and testify during the General Assembly session.
"This is the beginning of an aggressive campaign," he said.