Latest tuition hike at Harford CC is ill-timed [Editorial]

December 26, 2013|Editorial from The Aegis

The term "structural deficit" seems to have crept into fairly common usage among some people who work in bureaucracies.

In Maryland state government, it has been part of the parlance for going on a dozen or more years. It rose to prominence when the governor and the General Assembly started looking at the relationship between projected tax income and anticipated spending growth in various programs and came to the conclusion that program expenses were growing more quickly than state tax revenues.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s solution was to legalize slot machine gambling, touted as the cure for the structural deficit. But political gaming took priority in the process and it wasn't until Gov. Martin O'Malley took office that slot machine gambling was legalized.

But, alas, it was too late. State gambling revenue couldn't make up the difference. An increase in the state sales tax was pitched as the fix and enacted.

Not enough. The addition of table games at slots casinos. That's the ticket. That'll fix it.

Well, not so much. With the General Assembly poised to convene a few days into the new year, the words structural deficit are again showing up in budget discussions.

Curiously, the discussions of dealing with the Maryland structural deficit have focused almost entirely on increases in state revenue – tax and fee hikes. It's kind of the opposite of the situation in Washington, D.C., where the political dynamic is such the solution to spending more than you're taking in is largely focused on cutting programs.

No doubt the political gaming on the subject will be in full flower in the new year in Annapolis and a few miles down the highway in Washington, even as the likelihood for reasonable fixes that involve both spending cuts and tax increases is very slim.

Now comes Harford Community College, which is said to be facing a "structural deficit" and has therefore proposed a per credit hour tuition increase of $12 for county residents. (A comparable increase is proposed for people who live outside the county and pay tuition on scales that are higher based on whether they're from Maryland but not Harford, or from out-of-state entirely.)

This comes after a series of ongoing tuition increases since the 2007 budget year, when the per credit rate at Harford was $77 for county residents. The new rate, if the newly-proposed $12 increase is approved, would be $104 per credit hour, which means the tuition will have increased $27 per credit hour, or by more than a third, in seven years.

The reason cited for the structural deficit, for which the tuition increase is proposed, is that funding levels from the state and county governments are not expected to increase, even as the college is facing increased demand for its services and is in the midst of a growth spurt of campus construction projects.

Make no mistake, even with the tuition increase, the cost per credit hour at Harford Community College is a bargain compared even to in-state tuition for the University of Maryland system, which has an undergraduate per credit cost north of $300. Considering that Harford Community College, like junior colleges statewide and across the country for that matter, offers top tier learning opportunities, $104 a credit can be seen as a comparative bargain.

That bargain status fades, however, for people faced with personal structural deficits. The U.S. Census Bureau says median household income in Maryland is just about $73,000 a year (before taxes). Notoriously, the years since 2007 when the tuition hikes began at Harford Community College, have been lean ones, as people have lost jobs, or simply experienced wage stagnation amid higher energy and other costs.

Even as public colleges can charge more per credit and as local, state and federal governments can increase tax rates, when the majority of people who end up paying these increases face similar "structural deficits" in household income, there are no mechanisms for being granted need-based raises.

Before this next round of tuition increases is enacted, the administration and board of trustees at Harford Community College need to give serious consideration to delaying some of their planned big ticket projects – or perhaps scaling back enterprises that aren't strictly academic.

Whether good times are around the corner, or a few years off, when the financial pressures on working people ease a bit, college revenues are apt to increase by virtue of a growing economy. That's when it'll be OK to spend a bit on niceties in addition to necessities.

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