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The 3 percent solution [Editorial]

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There's no greater test for any individual's faith in higher education than to sit down and write a tuition check. You may love your son or daughter absolutely, and you may have an unshakable faith in the college or university of their choice, but when pen hits paper? Well, that's an awful lot of money to hand over without any equity, or perhaps a villa in the South of France, in return.

That's why Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's recent announcement that he would cap annual tuition increases at Maryland's public universities at 3 percent for his four-year term as governor — should he be elected to the post this year — was probably a no-brainer for the campaign. Who's going to object to limiting tuition bills?

Certainly not Gov. Martin O'Malley who has championed a similar tuition cap, as well as the tuition freeze that came before it, as an effort to make college more affordable. And even before Mr. O'Malley arrived in the State House, Democrats found it a winning issue and a way to contrast themselves with the policies of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who cut funding to higher education and was content to see tuition rise (the man he appointed to head the University System of Maryland Board of Regents having famously championed that cause).

And we've supported the cap, too. Over the last decade, University System of Maryland schools have become much more affordable as in-state tuition and fees have essentially risen no faster than inflation. It's bumped Maryland's four-year tuition, once regarded as among the most costly in the nation, to middle-of-the-pack status.

According to the College Board, Maryland has had the second lowest increase in four-year tuition and fees of any state in the nation over the last five years with only Missouri ranked higher. Today, that amounts to $8,475 in the current academic year compared to $6,770 in 2004-2005.

But here's the problem with the policy: Blindly capping college tuition isn't necessarily making school more affordable for those who need the help most. It is, after all, a benefit that is extended to all Marylanders regardless of income or ability to pay. And since taxpayer dollars have been used to offset the impact of the cap, it amounts to a fantastically regressive tax policy.

It would be one thing if every student within the University of Maryland system who needed financial aid to attend school could get it now. But that's not the case. In fiscal 2012, unmet financial needs at Maryland schools totaled $1.8 billion, or 58 percent of the $3.2 billion in overall financial need, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. How many Marylanders still can't afford to attend a state school despite the tuition cap?

What if, instead of a 3 percent cap, the public colleges and universities raised tuition 5 percent but used the 2 percent difference to help their neediest applicants? It would have no impact on the overall higher education budget, but it would make college more affordable to those who need the help most — instead of giving the same taxpayer-financed discount to the sons and daughters of millionaires as the state does to the children of the working class.

Again, that's not to suggest schools shouldn't do more to restrain costs. College has gotten too expensive, and schools must do more to hold down expenses. But capping tuition isn't the same as capping the budget. And we think the better approach to this problem is to offer flexibility, not orthodoxy.

Yet even Mr. Brown's chief rivals within his party seem reluctant to criticize his plan. In a recent meeting with The Sun's editorial board, Attorney General Douglas Gansler said he recognized the regressive nature of the cap and the benefits of investing in need-based financial aid instead — but then backed away from opposing Mr. Brown's plan altogether.

We suspect most Democrats in Annapolis recognize the shortcomings of a tuition cap, too, but they also know that removing it won't play well with voters, particularly those with college-age children or grandchildren. That the policy fails to address the real issues — keeping down costs and making college affordable to all — is immaterial. Rare is the voter who recognizes how something called a "tuition cap" might actually work against his or her own financial interests, and rarer still, at least so it appears, is the Democratic politician who will do something about it.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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