A public investment

Our view: It makes sense to cut state funds to private colleges now, but after the recession, the aid should be a centerpiece of our economic development agenda

November 20, 2009

When Gov. Martin O'Malley brought his latest package of budget cuts to the Board of Public Works on Wednesday, some of the loudest objections came from Maryland's private colleges and universities, which faced a $9 million reduction in the funding they have traditionally received to help pay for financial aid for Maryland students and to support educational programs that public universities don't offer. They succeeded in knocking the cut to what is known as the Sellinger program down to $7 million, but even that, college officials say, is an extreme hardship. The recession is squeezing families' finances and forcing students to seek more financial aid at a time when college endowments have taken a beating, and the drop in state aid will only exacerbate a bad situation.

Even so, Mr. O'Malley was perfectly justified under the circumstances in reducing the flow of state funds to private institutions. He has cut more than $1 billion from this year's operating budget, affecting the operation of every state agency. Drug addiction treatment, mental health care, social services, assisted living for seniors, HIV prevention and homeless services were all cut in this round of budget reductions alone. The private colleges are lucky they didn't face worse.

According to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services (DLS), Maryland has historically funded private colleges and universities more generously than any other state, both in terms of the percentage of the state budget devoted to them and in raw dollars.

Under state law, Maryland is supposed to give private colleges 16 percent of what it would spend on an equivalent number of students at a public university, though that standard hasn't been met in recent years. If Sellinger were fully funded, it would amount to $66 million this year.

General financial aid is available to private school students in many states, though it is not usually funneled through the schools. According to DLS, only 14 states provide direct funding to private colleges, and only two states with which Maryland competes economically - New York and New Jersey - provide money through a formula like Maryland's. Most just support specific programs that public institutions don't offer. In fiscal 2007, Maryland spent 3.4 percent of its higher education budget on direct aid to private institutions. Pennsylvania was the nearest competitor at just 2.2 percent.

Still, there is a reason Maryland supports private institutions of higher education. When the state comes out of this recession, it should look carefully at all of the things that were cut to find ones that need not be restored. But Sellinger funds shouldn't be one of them. About 80 percent of the money goes toward financial aid, which is limited to Maryland residents. Helping pay for more Maryland students to stay in state for college is an excellent investment; the $38 million in remaining Sellinger funding probably does as much to help secure Maryland's economic future as anything the Department of Business and Economic Development does with its nearly $100 million budget.

Maryland has concluded that it should focus its economic development efforts on biotechnology, research, medicine, engineering and other high-tech fields that take advantage of our already highly educated work force. We may not be able to afford it now, but in the years to come, the state needs to maintain and expand its investments in higher education - including aid to private colleges - if that strategy is to succeed.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial provided an incorrect figure for the budget of the Department of Business and Economic Development. The Sun regrets the error.

Readers respond
As a current student at a private university in Maryland, I am receiving an education that I would not trade anything for in the world. I receive fairly good financial aid but still have to take out loans to cover the rest of the costs. Let me ask you, what is going to happen to me and others in my situation?

Lizzie

Funds to private schools should be eliminated. What we need is to use that money for free community colleges. I work at a local private college, and this school spends so much money on frivolous things, you would be astounded.

Camille

The best and the brightest are not necessarily the most able to afford private college. I think giving aid to students to allow them to attend private college is as important as giving aid to students to attend public colleges. The bottom line is it is for the student, not the institution.

Mike Evans

When a Maryland student is educated in a private college rather than a public one, the cost to the state is much less. Cutting aid to private college students will inevitably push more of them into an overcrowded public system and increase the state's ultimate costs.

Chris

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