Gov. Martin O'Malley, who pumped millions of extra dollars into the state's university system to fulfill a campaign promise to keep tuition flat, is hoping the investment pays dividends at the ballot box later this year.
But with voters concerned about their jobs and the economy as the nation tries to wrest itself from the worst recession in two generations, analysts aren't sure how much one of O'Malley's signature initiatives, the tuition freeze that will end this fall, has resonated with voters.
"I don't see it as a huge issue in and of itself," said Patrick Gonzales, an Annapolis pollster, referring to the cost of college tuition. The challenge for O'Malley, Gonzales said, will be to link his tuition goals with other economic themes. "If it's part and parcel of a broader discussion on economic issues, it could be helpful."
O'Malley's approach on tuition contrasted sharply with that of his opponent, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Ehrlich relied on tuition increases to help dig the state out of the record deficit it faced when he came into office. Average tuition went up about 40 percent during his four years. In an April appearance on radio station WYPR, Ehrlich said O'Malley's protracted freeze "hurt higher education."
Though he has focused his economic message more on jobs, O'Malley hinted at how he will use the tuition issue during a high school commencement speech last week in Ocean City. "Because of the responsibilities that have fallen on your shoulders, together as one Maryland, we've chosen — alone among the 50 states — to freeze in-state tuition for four years in a row," he said. "As a result, those of you who enroll at a state college or university this fall will not have to pay one of the most expensive tuitions in America — that wasn't true four years ago."
Despite the 3 percent tuition increase this year, O'Malley will hammer on the fact that Maryland universities were the sixth most expensive in the country when he took office and now rank 21st. Higher education experts have hailed his stand on tuition as a unique achievement in the past decade.
"I expect it to be an issue during the election," said an O'Malley campaign spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese. "Specifically because we have our record and former Governor Ehrlich has his. The contrasts are stark."
An Ehrlich campaign spokesman, Andy Barth, said the former governor would not shy away from debates about tuition. Ehrlich regards the four-year freeze as a blunt tool that gave economic breaks to families who could have afforded to pay more and did not do enough for those who needed the most help.
"Governor Ehrlich went to college on scholarship, and he's well aware of the importance of need-based aid," Barth said. "He doubled the funding for need-based scholarships and made going to college affordable for students who couldn't afford it. It's different to, but just as important as, a freeze."
Abbruzzese countered that O'Malley increased scholarship aid by $95 million and, thus, gave students the best of both worlds.
Ehrlich will also emphasize "the need to look hard at reining in costs," Barth said.
Outside education experts have lavished praise on O'Malley for keeping tuition down at a time when it's soaring in many states. University System Chancellor William E. Kirwan said his colleagues are "literally in a state of disbelief" when he describes the Maryland situation at national conferences.
Average tuition for state universities went up about 8 percent nationwide for the fall of 2009, including 15 percent increases in Florida and New York and an increase of more than 30 percent in California. O'Malley, meanwhile, added $16 million to the University System of Maryland's budget to wipe out a tuition increase proposed by the Board of Regents.
"It's such an extraordinary achievement that it would be surprising if Governor O'Malley didn't talk about it during his campaign," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "Nobody else in the country has done it this century."
When tuition soars, many low-income families are discouraged from thinking college is possible for their children, Hartle said. Talented students are also more likely to leave for other states and never return.
"If you want to keep your brightest people, encourage them to go to your public university," Hartle said.
That sort of message resonates with voters, said state Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Democrat whose district includes College Park. Rosapepe said he expects O'Malley to trumpet his record on tuition throughout the fall.
"He really led the nation in the effort to keep children in college, and it's a big deal," said Rosapepe, who was a regent when Ehrlich was governor. "It's a big deal to the individual and a big deal to the state."