Students at growing Howard Community College in Columbia are facing the second tuition increase in as many years next fall, after college trustees unanimously approved a $4-per-credit boost for the budget they will submit to County Executive Ken Ulman.
The increase, double the $2-per-credit rise approved last year, was approved without discussion at a brief board meeting Wednesday night at the college, though board Chairwoman Kathy Rensin said it was discussed at length at a work session in January
"We have been discussing it for a while, wrestling with it with it — trying to put it off," Rensin said after the vote. "Nobody wants to ask students to pay more money," she said, but the college must maintain a level of quality. The increase would take tuition to $120 per credit and produce nearly $600,000 more for the proposed $141 million budget. The college did not raise tuition two years ago.
Including various fees for activities, technology, materials and to help pay for a new parking garage, the total is $140 per credit, or $4,203 per school year for a full-time student, said Nancy Santos Gainer, the college's spokeswoman. She pointed out that that's far less than what Maryland's public four-year colleges charge. That income represents 41 percent of the college's revenue.
College President Kate Hetherington said that about $700,000 a year in tuition payments is used to pay for scholarships for needy students. Another small portion of the tuition is used to help finance new buildings on the campus.
A parking garage is under construction, and a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new health sciences building to expand nursing and other medical training programs was held last week. Howard operates a small auxiliary campus in Laurel, and it is working to establish a new medical profession training facility in Mount Airy in a shared project with Carroll and Frederick community colleges.
"You have to balance the cost students are paying with the need to provide a quality education," Hetherington said.
Ivan Lopez, 19, of Ellicott City, a sophomore who wants to be a police officer and eventually a lawyer, said the extra $4 per credit may not sound like much, but it will add to an already heavy financial burden.
"People are struggling to pay these fees already. It adds up," he said. Just two history textbooks cost him $180, he said.
Cutting costs at the college is a challenge, however, Hetherington said, since Howard is the second-fastest-growing community college in the state behind Baltimore County's three-college system. Howard's midwinter enrollment rose 14 percent and spring semester registration rose 6 percent over last year at the same time, according to Cynthia J. Peterka, the college's vice president for student services. College officials built a projected three percent enrollment increase into their fiscal 2012 budget proposal.
Total paid student enrollment was 9,568 in fall 2010, compared with 7,992 a decade ago. Another 16,780 noncredit students were also taking classes at HCC last fall..
"It's not as large as last year's increase," she said. "The surge in enrollment is starting to level off," she added, referring to the boom in community college enrollments brought on by the recession's pressures for retraining.
While the college continues to grow, Peterka said, the percentage of full-time faculty has dropped to 37 percent, below the minimum 50 percent industry standard, and 2 percent lower than last year. The college is asking Ulman for enough money to hire 14 more full-time instructors, 10 of whom would be needed to maintain the current staffing proportions. To reach the 50 percent goal, the college would need 32 more full- time faculty members, college budget director Lynn Coleman said.
The college is also asking Ulman for $331,000 more to allow a 1 percent pay raise for the staff as part of a requested $750,000 increase in the county's funding.
"We haven't been able to award people pay raises as we would like to have done last year," said board member Patrick J. Huddie, "but we continue to attract good people."
The college, like many public institutions in the recession, has been stuck between expanding needs and stagnant income, officials said. Ulman, facing budget pressures of his own, did not increase the county's $25 million contribution to the college this budget year, while the state, which provided $12.3 million this year, has cut funding in each of the past three years by a total of $1.3 million.
No increase in state funding is expected for fiscal 2012, though neither the state nor the county budget will be final until spring. To get through this fiscal 2011 year, the college used $1.8 million left over from the previous year, and Hetherington said officials are looking for new ways to reduce costs.
"I think the board faculty and staff has done a very good job cutting costs," she said. The Belmont Conference Center, a historic estate in Elkridge that was used for culinary and hotel training courses, was closed in December as part of cost-cutting, though it produced an unexpected $23,713 profit for the first half of the year. The property is for sale.
Hetherington said the board would review the budget once the state and county contributions are approved. "If we're not funded at what we project, we'll have to look at refining what we put in the budget," she said.