Time for Maryland state government to fund its fair share of community college budgets [Editorial]

If the state continues to short-change its community colleges, they'll become more unaffordable

A sad commentary about contemporary life in this country is that many Americans can't afford reasonably competent American health care, nor can many Americans afford a quality American higher education.

This editorial, however, isn't about broken national health care and higher education polices, it's about a broken state policy, one that has sucked tax dollars away from one aspect of quality higher education Maryland residents of all ages ought to be able to afford – community college.

If you have even been casually following the budget issues confronting Harford Community College, which The Aegis has reported about voluminously over the past few years, you know the drill: Student tuition has risen seven straight years. It will go up 2 percent in the 2017-18 academic year that begins this fall and might have gone up a tad higher, if Gov. Larry Hogan hadn't agreed to provide some supplemental state funding to the 16 community colleges, if they capped next year's tuition increases at 2 percent, which is what the HCC Board of Trustees did last week.

Supplemental state funding will not, however, address the systemic problem that HCC officials have discussed in the past and one which no doubt also face the administrations of Maryland's other community colleges: The state's share of community college funding has been on a steady decline.

According to next year's budget for HCC, approved by the trustees earlier this year, Harford County will provide approximately 33 percent of the funds needed for the college's $48.8 million operating budget, student tuition and fees 42 percent and the State of Maryland 24 percent.

What's wrong with this picture? Historically, the community college system in Maryland was to have a 33-33-33, state, county and student funding ratio. It's not set in stone, obviously, but what has happened over the years is as the cost of running HCC has increased, the county share has stayed fairly constant, but the state's share has declined and the result has been to place more and more burden on students and their families.

As the economy started to tank nearly a decade ago, and many families could no longer afford community college tuition, HCC experienced an enrollment slide, which continues, putting further pressure on its tuition rates.

We can argue, and have on occasion, that HCC's previous leadership should have done more internal budget adjusting to try to keep tuition as low as possible. There's a new administration on campus now aggressively pursuing student recruitment and retention, aided with marketing strategies that the previous administration initiated.

But good budget management and good marketing can only go so far. If the state continues to short-change its community colleges, which we believe is the case, just as it continues to short-change its public school system with a broken funding model based on antiquated distribution formulas, the day will come when a community college education will be priced beyond the affordability of too many of our families, not unlike what has happened with heath care and four-year colleges. At least in this instance, the state government can do something about it.

Harford Community College is a major asset in this community. It provides a quality, affordable entry into higher education. Many students choose Harford and other community colleges for reasons not simply related to cost, such as not ready to leave home, not sure of a career path, in need of remedial entry courses, best route to desired career. But cost also remains a key factor in the decision-making process.

HCC leadership has done its job to accommodate all these and other needs of its student body. It's time for the governor and the Maryland General Assembly to do their part and give the community college system the level of financial support it needs and deserves.

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