Something happened in Maryland on the way to the not-so-Great Recession: We recognized that, for today's college students, it's not where you start, it's that you finish.
On May 13, the state's political and education leaders gathered to honor University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan and to announce the establishment of "A Matter of Degrees: USM Leading the Way in College Completion," a $2.5 million fund to support degree completion for USM students. The fund was launched by a $500,000 Carnegie Corporation Academic Leadership Award Mr. Kirwan received in recognition of his commitment to excellence in higher education.
At the event, Gov. Martin O'Malley shared his vision of making Maryland the national leader in percentage of college graduates, consistent with President Barack Obama's goal of making the United States the world leader in college graduates by 2020.
We are fortunate that our elected officials recognize the critical role that access to higher education plays in Maryland's present and future. We can be particularly proud that public, undergraduate in-state tuition has been frozen for the past four years, a record unmatched anywhere in the country. During this unprecedented stretch, undergraduate tuition in Maryland has gone from the sixth most expensive in the nation to a projected 21st, while USM institutions have collectively climbed in national rankings and in other quality measures.
As president of the University of Baltimore — an urban institution committed to providing access to affordable, quality education for a diverse, nontraditional student population — I can tell you firsthand how important the moderation of tuition is for students and their families. After a time in which state budget uncertainties resulted in a 40 percent hike in USM tuition rates, this commitment to affordability has restored public education to its correct place as a right for all, not a privilege for few.
So, despite these challenging times, enrollment in Maryland's public four-year and community colleges continues to rise. At the University of Baltimore, enrollment increased by more than 24 percent from 2004 to 2009; students are clearly recognizing that a college degree has become the entry point to our knowledge-based economy.
Contrast this with the dire situation in California, long considered to have one of the nation's leading public university systems. An ABC News report estimates that more than 300,000 fewer students will be admitted to California's four-year and community colleges this year and next — shutting classrooms at the precise moment when taxpayers need them the most — while fee increases will range from 9 percent to 32 percent. If the short-term effect is devastating, what of the long-term impact? Where will California's work force come from? How will future leaders be developed, or innovators emerge? How will an informed, educated citizenry flourish?
During the coming academic year, Maryland's in-state undergraduate tuition will increase by 3 percent, the first increase in five years. This increase was kept low by additional state support, further proof of the high priority our elected officials have placed on both access to education and degree completion. Even discounting the current recession (wishful thinking), if I was told five years ago that UB's undergraduate tuition would increase by 3 percent over a five-year period — or $32 a year — I would have been somewhat incredulous and deeply appreciative.
The governor's leadership and the strong support of the legislature, chancellor and Board of Regents ensure that our state's and region's future will not be hostage to budgetary fluctuations or missteps. It means that higher education can again take its place as a centerpiece of the American Dream. Maybe it's time to change the song to "Maryland Dreamin'."
Robert L. Bogomolny is president of the University of Baltimore. His e-mail is email@example.com.