State To Keep Tuition Freeze

Extra Payment To Um System Averts Increase

April 24, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Gov. Martin O'Malley, sleeves rolled up, perched on a stool in the Towson University student union Thursday, moments after the Board of Regents voted unanimously to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition for the fourth straight year.

"That is quite an accomplishment," he told a group of students. Regents said they would have raised tuition by 4 percent, but the governor provided the state system with an extra $16 million to hold the line. The accomplishment, then, was as much O'Malley's as the regents', and he savored the victory yesterday in a year that has not always been kind to him.

"Our state's future competitiveness, our global strength, depends on our ability to invest in the skills of our people," O'Malley said. "To govern is to choose, and in our state we've chosen to make public education and affordable, accessible, quality higher education a priority."

The freeze is unusual at a time when state budgets are taking a beating from the recession. Some states have cut deeply into higher education, forcing double-digit tuition increases. Tuition is going up by 10 percent in California, 14 percent in New York and 25 percent for incoming freshmen in Georgia.

"This is the worst year to raise tuition because look at what's happening to families," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the Maryland system. "Loans are harder to get. Family members are losing jobs. ... We have to really appreciate the special thing that is happening in Maryland."

O'Malley priority

O'Malley made freezing tuition a priority as he positions himself for an expected re-election run next year. He did not meet all of his goals in the legislative session that just ended - the death penalty was not repealed, and lawmakers rebuffed his proposal to exert more regulatory control over electricity markets - but holding the line on tuition was a clear victory.

Some political observers, however, said the tuition freeze might not score O'Malley many political points. Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, called the move "a symbolic gesture that appeals to a relatively small constituency" and one that voters might disregard in the face of a crushing recession.

"People are just swamped, overwhelmed about scary things happening in the economy," Crenson said. "There are too many other things going on right now."

Tuition up for some

Tuition will go up for out-of-state undergraduates, as well as for graduate and professional students. And undergraduates will see small increases in fees. Some students at Thursday's meeting said that while they appreciated the freeze, they worried about the effects it might have on academic quality and growth. The university system was not given money by the state to expand.

"It is clear that Governor O'Malley is dedicated to freezing tuition for in-state undergraduate students to maintain accessibility, but does this dedication extend to the quality of university system institutions?" said William Logan, a Towson senior and chairman of the state university system's student council.

Questions of access

Officials said quality would not suffer, but they did raise concerns about accessibility. Regent David Nevins said, "This is probably the best we could hope to do this year, but I do think in going forward we need to find a way to resume funding to grow enrollment. Every one of our institutions is becoming tougher and tougher to get into."

The University of Maryland, College Park, the state's flagship, plans to reduce the size of its freshman class by several hundred students over the next few years to become more selective and improve quality.

Other universities, such as Towson, would like to grow but don't have the money.

Towson students who met with O'Malley on Thursday said the freeze would help them and their families. Liam Davis, 19, a sophomore, said his part-time job at a grocery store has taught him the importance of getting a college degree to advance in life. The freeze, he said, "makes a difference because many families have tight budgets and an increase would force us to take out loans."

Increase predicted

Tuition will go up eventually, though. But the freeze has helped Maryland become more affordable compared with its peers. Four years ago, the state had the sixth-highest public university tuition. By next year, that ranking is expected to have fallen to 18th in the nation.

"We can't stay at zero percent forever, but to do it four years in a row has meant we've been able to return to the ranks of more affordable and more moderately priced tuition," the governor said.

The system includes 11 public universities. Two state universities - Morgan State and St. Mary's College - operate outside the system. Tuition at Morgan will also be frozen, while St. Mary's is rising 5 percent. Private universities are also increasing tuition but by smaller amounts than in the past. Hopkins, for instance, raised tuition 3.8 percent.

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