Can UMD fix its diversity problem by raising tuition?

A recently-released study by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit that monitors diversity in education, found that the University of Maryland comes up woefully short in recruiting the state’s African American high school seniors. Among flagship universities nationwide, only a handful have demonstrated as large a gap between the percentage of black students graduating from that state’s high schools and the percentage of black students enrolled in the university. As of 2015, the year examined by the analysis, the University of Maryland’s student body was 12 percent African American while Maryland high schools recorded a graduating class that was 36 percent black.

There are any number of explanations for this imbalance. Many of Maryland’s school systems have graduated minority students who are ill-prepared for college. The university has become more selective, and that’s made admission more difficult for many minority students. The school must compete with a number of historically black colleges both locally and nationally for African American students. And then there’s Maryland’s reputation for being less-than-welcoming to minorities, dating from the days of racial segregation when College Park was for whites only (the first black student was not admitted until 1951) and coming painfully into view again last year with to the killing of Richard W. Collins III, the black Bowie State student stabbed to death on the UMD campus in what is being prosecuted as a hate crime.

But there’s also at least one more possible culprit: The state-imposed mandate that has kept in-state tuition at the school artificially low. That may sound counter-intuitive. After all, isn’t keeping higher education affordable a noble goal? The problem is that by limiting tuition increases for all Maryland students — Maryland is now among the lowest cost schools in the Big 10 Conference despite the state’s having the highest average household income in the country — the school has less money available for need-based financial aid. In other words, the more that goes into keeping tuition low for the wealthiest among us, the less available to subsidize the poorest. And, unfortunately, quite a few minority students are coming from less affluent households where they may be the first ever to attend college.

Percentage of first-time black students at UMD

Black representation among first-time students at the University of Maryland, College Park has fallen to a five year low.

In a meeting last week with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, UMD President Wallace D. Loh spoke about how his campus had become more diverse during his tenure while also becoming more selective. Meanwhile, though, tuition here has been kept artificially low through political mandates. Gov. Martin O’Malley hammered his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for allowing public schools’ tuition to go up, and the Democrat did what it took to keep the rate frozen for much of his tenure. Since then, and continuing under Gov. Larry Hogan, the state’s new Republican governor, in-state tuition has risen only modestly, making a place like College Park a tremendous deal for parents who can afford it and driving up competition for admissions slots. State support for the university system, however, has declined, making up about 42 percent of College Park’s budget today, down from about 52 percent eight years ago. Something had to give, and need-based financial aid simply hasn’t kept pace with demand. Unmet financial need at Maryland’s schools has grown to $2 billion or more.

Why don’t lawmakers do something about that? That’s easy. Because keeping tuition as low as possible for the benefit of all voters helps them get re-elected. Imagine your local delegate or senator telling you that he or she is voting to raise tuition by 10 percent or more so that 1,000 more low-income students can afford to go to College Park? Or perhaps worse, that the state is raising taxes to bring the shared cost of higher education back to where it was a decade ago? Or that it’s all necessary to make College Park more racially diverse? That would fly in legislative districts where a lot of families are living below the poverty level perhaps but not necessarily in many others.

Mr. Loh has a challenging assignment, but he could use some help from Annapolis. He’s not asking for a change in the tuition formula (at least not yet), but he acknowledged that affordability can be an issue in recruiting minority students. Diversity isn’t just some noble but theoretical goal, it’s a practical solution for Maryland’s continuing economic disparity. A UM diploma goes a long way to raising a person’s financial circumstances, but it can’t help those who can’t afford to attend the school in the first place.

Obviously, racism on campus has to be addressed and black students made to feel welcome and safe in College Park. Yet what about policies that effectively deny need-based financial aid to prospective students? Will lawmakers take up that part of the diversity cause or would they prefer to quietly continue subsidizing tuition for the rich?

Racial disparities at the University of Maryland, College Park

The demographic percentages of 2015 Maryland high school graduates differ from the enrollment rate at UMD.

2017 UMD first-time student enrollment

Minorities represent roughly 43 percent of first-time students enrolled this fall, including about 20 percent who identified as Asian, nearly 8 percent as Hispanic and 4 percent as more than one race. But just 10.8 percent are African American, the lowest representation of first-time black students in at least five years.

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