O'Malley seeks to hold tuition lid

At College Park, governor says higher education still not `affordable'

May 04, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

COLLEGE PARK -- Gov. Martin O'Malley promised that he will seek to freeze tuition at state colleges and universities for the next several years, saying he wants to continue investing in higher education even as Maryland grapples with expected budget shortfalls.

Speaking to a roomful of students, faculty and others at the University of Maryland, College Park, O'Malley said higher education spending is key to expanding the middle class. However, he expressed skepticism about an idea advanced by some education advocates to develop a separate revenue stream for the state's colleges and universities.

"I don't believe for a second we've succeeded in making higher education more affordable yet," O'Malley said. "What we did this year was an important step, but we need to keep doing that for several years in a row."

Students at University System of Maryland campuses experienced tuition increases of much as 40 percent at some schools during the past four years. O'Malley made the issue a central point of his campaign last year, and he allocated an extra $124 million to the University System this year, enough to freeze tuition for the 2007-2008 academic year.

Andrew Friedson, president of the UM student government association, said he applauds O'Malley's commitment to higher education in the face of state budget shortfalls expected to total as much as $1.5 billion starting in the fiscal year that begins in July 2008. He said high tuition is a burning issue among the state's college students.

"Governor O'Malley touched on it perfectly today," said Friedson, 21, a junior from Potomac who is majoring in government and politics. "We just got started. These are long-term investments that need to be made to hold tuition down."

Other members of the panel, including University System Chancellor William E. Kirwan and C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., the president of College Park, said Maryland has one of the most highly educated work forces in the United States but that the state's long-term global competitiveness is far from guaranteed.

Kirwan said a college degree is a prerequisite for a high quality of life today, but that the nation's status as the most educated in the industrialized world is quickly slipping.

"Only about 20 percent of today's eighth-graders will graduate from college in 10 years," he said. "You have to wonder, what will the other 80 percent be doing in 2017? Clearly, as a nation, we are going in the wrong direction."

Mote said he is increasingly concerned with the amount of debt that College Park students graduate with - $13,000 on average. But he said it is crucial that as the university system works to make education more affordable that it maintain the high-caliber faculty to keep graduates competitive.

"We can't talk about quality without talking about affordable access, and we can't talk about affordable access without talking about quality," Mote said. "They go together."

Students who attended the forum said they appreciated O'Malley's commitment, but some questioned how he will be able to keep it given the state's budget problems.

O'Malley told them that he will work over the coming months to find efficiencies in state government, modernize the tax system - likely a combination of cuts and increases that will result in Marylanders paying more overall - and find state programs that can be cut. But he said he thinks quality higher education is something Marylanders would be willing to pay more to safeguard.

"There are certain things we should be paying taxes for, and ensuring the quality of higher education and maintaining access to higher education is among the most important," O'Malley said.

Richard Moss, 20, a sophomore from Gaithersburg, said he hasn't personally had difficulty affording tuition and fees, which are now $6,566 a year for in-state students. But he said he has plenty of friends who have difficulty and was glad to hear O'Malley's commitment to holding costs down.

"I feel hopeful for the future of the university," Moss, a civil engineering major, said after the forum. "As O'Malley said, we still have a long way to go, but hopefully he can get tuition to come down and make higher education a possibility to everyone in the state."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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