Gov. Martin O'Malley said Thursday that he hopes to hold tuition increases for Maryland residents attending the state's public universities to no more than the 3 percent he has allowed in each of the last three years.

In a meeting with student government leaders from state-supported colleges and universities, O'Malley also expressed distaste for the idea of charging higher tuitions for students in so-called STEM programs -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. So-called differential tuitions are an idea that has been adopted by some U.S. colleges, and O'Malley gave his answer in response to a question from a student who was concerned that University of Maryland President Wallace Loh was considering such a plan.

The meeting with the governor was proposed by two student government leaders who said they wanted to thank O'Malley for holding tuition costs down since he became governor in 2007. The governor proposed four straight budgets with no increases before allowing rates to rise 3 percent in the three most recent budgets.

The governor met in person with about 18 student leaders at the State House, while others were linked in from remote locations on their campuses.

O'Malley, who is in the middle of internal administration budget deliberations now, said he doesn't foresee a return to flat tuition rates in next year's budget. He said his goal was to hold the increase to no more than 3 percent and thinks the state can hit that target.

Holding that line could be challenging because the state still faces a long-term revenue shortfall of more than $600 million. But in previous years, O'Malley has resisted pressure to increase revenue by charging students more.

"What good are your higher standards if no one can afford to go any more?" O'Malley told the students.

Gazette.net reported early this year that university leaders and faculty were considering a plan that would charge a tuition premium for students in STEM programs because of the higher costs of offering such classes. At the time university officials stressed that the discussions were "preliminary."

Asked about the possibility, O'Malley said such a plan seems to run counter to his administration's goal of encouraging students to enter STEM programs to meet a growing demand for such skills in the labor market.

"Memo to self: What's Wallace thinking?" O'Malley quipped. He speculated that university leaders might be looking for leverage in their discussion with the administration and General Assembly leaders over the budget.

In a later interview, O'Malley said it was the first he'd heard of such a proposal.

"We're trying to produce more STEM degrees and raising the price would be a disincentive," he said.

Shahina Khan, a junior and student council president at the Universities of Shady Grove in Montgomery County, said she was pleased to hear the governor criticize the idea, adding that his opposition has a good chance of nipping any proposal in the bud. Khan, 21, said she was concerned that differential tuition could discourage students from taking courses outside their majors.

Many of the students expressed appreciation to the governor for his record of holding tuition increases to a lower level than those at other state university systems around the country.

Zach Cohen, a student at the University of Maryland, College Park and chairman of the University System of Maryland student council, recited a list of nearby states where tuition increases since 2008 had been much higher than Maryland's 9 percent. O'Malley beamed when told that arch-rival Virginia's public university tuitions had increased 37 percent over the same period.

"We do these things because it makes for a more dynamic economy, a more diverse economy," said O'Malley, a Democrat who spars regularly with Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell over whose state is performing better on a host of measures.

O'Malley told the students that tuition controls need to be matched by changes in how higher education institutions do business. He said there needs to be a shift away from the "sage on a stage" model -- traditional lectures by a professor -- to courses taught by experts from around the world with a "guide on the side."

The governor added that universities also have to take greater notice of the need of students to work while going through school by using Maryland's broadband resources to provide flexibility in when and where classes can be taken.

He said Maryland needs to get away from the "Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts for four years" model.