Teacher pension shift would hurt community colleges

March 06, 2012

It's difficult to imagine Maryland's future without its community colleges. Community colleges are needed now more than ever to put people back to work, to retrain employees who have lost jobs and to give high school graduates a viable option when they can't afford to enroll immediately in a four-year institution. It is their hopes that are at stake if the General Assembly enacts Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposal to shift a substantial portion of teacher pension costs from the state to local jurisdictions.

The pension shift proposed by the governor would create an immediate deficit for community colleges of at least $9.5 million for fiscal 2013, and the gap would increase in subsequent years. While the governor has proposed giving counties additional authority to raise offsetting revenues to make up for the loss of state funding, there is no guarantee the counties would benefit financially from such an option, or that they would be in a position to pass any new revenues on to their community colleges.

The counties lack the funds to take on a responsibility traditionally shouldered by the state. As a result, community colleges will have no other choice but to increase tuition for the very students who can least afford to pay more for their college education. And this comes at a time when both the governor and President Barack Obama have asked institutions of higher education to restrain rising tuition costs so that more students can earn college degrees.

At Howard Community College, 61 percent of budgeted employees are in the state retirement system. If the proposed pension shift is passed, the cost to the college's operating budget in fiscal year 2013 would be a staggering $565,000, with significant increases for the following years.

In recent years, the state's commitment to funding one-third of the cost of a community college education has fallen to below 20 percent, with student tuition picking up the shortfall. This is coupled with the fact that there has been a 99 percent increase in financial aid recipients at the college from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2012. Howard Community College students cannot absorb additional costs.

Those of us at community colleges understand the intense pressure that elected officials face as they consider how to deal with a $1 billion state budget shortfall. However, we ask them to carefully consider the impact that shifting the burden of pension costs to the counties — and through them, to community colleges — will have on all those seeking post-secondary degrees.

What would Maryland be like without its access to community colleges? Just ask the many nurses, teachers, emergency medical technicians, physical therapists, police officers, firefighters, cyber security professionals and other members of Maryland's critical workforce who benefited from a community college education.

Kathleen Hetherington, Columbia

The writer is president of Howard Community College.

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