University math

Our view : Lawmakers can't subtract and then expect no tuition additions

March 26, 2009

It doesn't take a college degree to question the curious math practiced by the House Appropriations Committee on the University System of Maryland's budget. If adding $16 million buys a tuition freeze for next year, what does simultaneously subtracting $21 million get you?

These State House scholars would have us believe it means a tuition freeze and a balanced budget. But those who live in the real world, like Chancellor William E. Kirwan, know the truth: After enduring several rounds of reductions, the University of Maryland schools must either raise tuition or harm the quality of their educational program to deal with so big a hit.

Mr. Kirwan's recent call to put a tuition increase back on the table is the correct one. The system originally envisioned raising tuition 4 percent next fall. It was Gov. Martin O'Malley's choice to add $16 million to the system's budget to retain the 3-year-old freeze on in-state undergraduate tuition. The House's $21 million cut may mean a 5 percent to 6 percent tuition increase will be required.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Three years of a tuition cap have made the cost of attending Maryland's 11 degree-granting schools more competitive with peers. It is not cheap to attend the flagship in College Park, but it is now comparable to many other major state universities of similar academic standing.

Mr. O'Malley's push to continue the freeze may have been reasonable under less dire economic conditions, but when the state is scrambling to reduce basic services, it smacks of middle-class welfare. That may have been good politics for the Democrats in 2006, but forcing the system to continue the freeze without adequate funding would require more than routine belt-tightening. Do we want larger classes, no-growth enrollment policies or more undergraduate courses taught by temps? Making a college degree affordable is a noble goal but not at the cost of all else.

Lawmakers ought to leave the business of setting college tuition in the hands of the university system's Board of Regents. They are better equipped to determine the proper balance between the cost of an education and the quality of one.

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