College ambitions

Our view : Can Maryland afford to spend dramatically more on higher education? If the goal is to create jobs, what the state can't afford is to let this opportunity pass

December 10, 2008

With the economy in recession and government scrambling to trim budgets, this would seem to be an inopportune moment to consider committing a huge sum of money to a new, ambitious state initiative. But the future of Maryland higher education is so vital to the state's economy and job creation that the time to ponder such a long-term goal is sooner, not later.

After more than 18 months of deliberation, a 28-member panel chaired by Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. is expected to recommend today that the state invest sharply more in its institutions of higher learning. Not for the prestige, not because lowering college tuition is a politically popular thing to do, but for one simple reason: Maryland's knowledge-based economy depends on it.

If Maryland is to attract and retain employers in this information age, the state must be able to provide a sufficient work force of college graduates. Right now, the state's higher-education system can't meet that goal.

Historically, Maryland schools have lacked adequate state support and depended too much on relatively high tuition rates. Many of the best go elsewhere, and many other qualified students miss out on college altogether because their families can't afford it, the statistics show.

How much should Maryland spend on higher education? The Bohanan commission has developed several benchmarks, and the most important is this -Maryland's support for its schools should be comparable to that provided by 10 states with which we compete economically.

That would mean funding to a level comparable to at least three-quarters of that of peers in such states as neighboring Virginia to tech-savvy North Carolina. And that would require pumping an additional $600 million into the state's higher-education budget, a more than 50 percent increase.

That's almost laughable to contemplate considering Gov. Martin O'Malley reduced the higher-education budget by $15 million this fall and more cuts are on the way. But as a 10-year goal, it's the right direction.

Having the University of Maryland, College Park and other schools charge in-state tuitions comparable to their counterparts in those same 10 select states - as the commission is expected to recommend - is also on the money. Maryland schools need to be world class but they also need to be affordable.

Where might the $600 million come from? Slot machine revenue will no doubt be part of that solution. So might an extension of Maryland's higher-education investment fund, which is set to expire this year. The fund, underwritten by corporate tax revenues, has financed a freeze on public school tuition for the past two years.

The General Assembly need not adopt the Bohanan benchmarks as mandatory, and the commission doesn't intend that. The recession works against it, and the legislature's experience with the Thornton Commission's K-12 spending (a $1.6 billion unfunded mandate) was painful enough.

But it would be a huge, costly mistake for lawmakers to treat these findings as merely advisory. Maryland needs top-flight schools with the capacity to add more students, many of whom won't be able to afford a college education without financial assistance. The competition for jobs in the information age will only intensify; Maryland can't compete successfully without investing more wisely in the future.

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