Tuition football

March 08, 2006

For higher education in Maryland, what could be better than Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed 12.5 percent budget increase for the next fiscal year? It would enable state colleges to make up for all his damaging budget cuts the last few years and to impose just a 4.5 percent tuition increase at College Park and most University System of Maryland campuses, a return to sanity after cumulative tuition increases since 2002 that have run as much as 50 percent.

But it's an election year. So Democratic legislators had to find a way to top Mr. Ehrlich: a proposal for a one-year tuition freeze. This week, they believe they even found the way to make up the $19 million-plus cost of that freeze to the universities - from an overbudgeting for college employee health costs.

Sounds win-win, at least on the surface. So on that basis alone, it stands a very good chance of being approved by the General Assembly. No one testified against the freeze at a House Appropriations Committee hearing yesterday, and any politician, the governor included, would be somewhat suicidal to disappoint the thousands of hard-pressed parents and students eager for tuition relief.

But here's the problem: The one-year freeze is just the latest sign that higher-education funding in Maryland has become a political football. Facing budget deficits, Mr. Ehrlich slashed colleges' budgets, and tuition levels soared to among the nation's costliest. This year, the state is flush, so it's politically convenient to try to make colleges whole and dampen tuition increases. Now Democrats would put in even more state money and freeze tuition. Then what happens when state budget deficits very soon return, as predicted? More university system cuts and more 10 percent tuition increases?

A firm and farsighted state commitment to funding higher education is absolutely critical to the long-term health of Maryland's economy. Unfortunately, as recent history shows, Maryland's commitment is uncertain and shortsighted. State leaders need to get serious about figuring out how to pay for the kind of university system this wealthy, educated state deserves.

Last legislative session, state Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, proposed forming a commission to do just that, much as the Thornton Commission did when it fostered a long-range commitment to funding Maryland's K-12 schools. The idea did not fly, and Senator Hogan did not bring it up again this year because, once again, it's an election year. That's a shame. This is a football that's too important to be tossed back and forth year after year.

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