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WHAT PRICE EMINENCE?

When the parents of students at Maryland's public colleges write out tuition checks next month, they will be paying rates about 20 percent higher than last fall's - $500 more per semester at some schools.

But families can take some solace in this: According to the regents who passed the tuition increase, the higher costs will be worth it. After all, regents say, Maryland's colleges are close to grasping the great holy grail of higher education: eminence.

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Over and over in recent weeks, leaders of the University System of Maryland justified passing tuition increases of up to 22 percent by saying there was no alternative to maintaining the quality of the system's 11 campuses in the face of deep budget cuts. Saving money by cutting programs, positions and salaries would, they said, put at risk the "eminence" and "excellence" the system is achieving.

It's difficult to argue with wanting to preserve the value of the education being offered at Maryland's public colleges. Increasingly, though, some wonder whether the state's emphasis on eminence may be coming at the expense of the system's other supposed priorities: access and affordability.

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In striving to win a national reputation for as many of its institutions as possible, critics warn, the system may be losing sight of basic budget realities and of its primary clientele - the middle- and working-class students of Maryland who want a university education but can't afford private colleges, or who don't have the glittering grades to get into fancy schools.

"How much eminence can a small state, albeit a wealthy one, afford for all its institutions? That's a question no one's answering," said Edwin S. Crawford, a former regent and chairman of the state's college savings plan. "Are we pricing and pushing good people out of the state because of this myth that every [campus] needs to achieve some pie-in-the-sky measure of eminence?"

Proponents of the need for huge tuition increases reject the idea that they've lost sight of the university system's primary mission. They argue that the system must try to achieve both excellence and accessibility - a difficult balance, but one they say they try to sustain.

"I believe we are committed equally to very high quality in form of eminence of various kinds and to access. Without one, the other is no good," said David H. Nevins, chairman of the regents' finance committee. "We need high quality because ... there's no point to having access to institutions that people don't want to attend."

Those on both sides of the debate agree on this: how the state solves the access vs. eminence equation has major implications for the state. Already, the system's recent rise in reputation has come with visible changes in the makeup of its campuses.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, the rise in both tuition and the academic qualifications of entering freshmen has been accompanied by a marked increase in the average family income of students, officials say. Meanwhile, even less selective schools like Towson University can no longer be counted on as automatic fallbacks for high school seniors: Towson rejected more than half its roughly 11,000 applicants this year.

The high stakes of the push for eminence are underscored by a telling statistic. With this month's tuition increases, the university system is, for the first time ever, collecting more of its operating budget from tuition and fees than it is from taxpayer-supported state funding, which, after $120 million in cuts, stands at $746 million.

At the meeting where the increases were approved, regent James C. Rosapepe said this "tipping point" signaled the transformation of the system from a public institution to a "private-type university [system] where quality is priority No. 1, 2 and 3," rather than accessibility.

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Others agree, seeing the statistic as a troubling symbol of the trend to view public higher education as a private good to be paid for by the beneficiary - students - rather than as a public good with the cost shared by students and society.

Under this view, critics warn, universities can raise tuition without limit, on the logic that the increased cost supports ever-greater quality, which in turn will reward students with more valuable diplomas and higher earnings over the course of their careers.

"The shift in philosophy from being a state-supported institution to a state-assisted institution does have implications for how you operate, because you move toward a more market mentality," said former Towson University President Hoke L. Smith, a new appointee to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. "I think we've lost sight of some of the public benefit."

Others play down the primacy of tuition revenue, saying it reflects nothing more than the temporary drop-off in state funding amid the budget crisis. After the tuition vote, Chancellor William E. Kirwan said he worries about the decline in state support, but said he disagreed with Rosapepe that "access and affordability aren't high priorities" of the system.

University officials note that much of their push for national eminence is focused on a few institutions, most notably the College Park flagship, which the system aspires to raise to the level of such top public research universities as Michigan, North Carolina and Berkeley. Tuition rates and admissions standards remain lower at many other system schools, they say.

But the fact is, most of the system's campuses have latched onto the eminence wagon to justify spending or policies. The president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County says he needed to give his vice presidents a 58 percent pay increase since 1998 to retain the talent needed to propel UMBC into the top tier of mid-sized research universities.

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Towson University's former president, Mark L. Perkins, justified his $1.8 presidential mansion as a venue that would allow Towson do to the fund raising and entertaining needed to "be with the great universities" of the country. And Salisbury University, which recently dropped the "state" in its name to sound more prestigious, sought and won one of the system's largest tuition increases - 22 percent - this year so it could continue its climb in national rankings.

Some question whether it's possible for all of the state's public colleges to aspire to the top of their "peer groups," as the various categories of colleges are called. When there are only so many dollars - and so many top students - to go around, can everyone be a champion?

"We all want to be pre-eminent, but if we're all pre-eminent, we'd be broke. I'd like to have to have a monstrous $2 million house in Hunt Valley, but I'd be broke if I did," said Crawford, the former regent. "If we're broke, what have we achieved?"

Crawford and others say the university system may just have to slow down its drive toward national prestige to keep pace with state funding and not overtax tuition. After all, UM, College Park is already near the top in tuition among public universities nationwide, even as it lags behind schools like Michigan and University of California, Berkeley in such categories as SAT scores of entering students.

"We don't have to get eminence in 24 hours," said Crawford. "No one says you can't have eminence, but how fast can you get there without breaking the piggy bank?"

Such talk alarms regents and university administrators - many of whom clearly enjoy the reflected glow of presiding over a well-regarded system. Quality, said regent Nevins, "can't be turned on and off like a spigot. You can't say, 'This year we'll have a little less quality.'"

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Still, he acknowledged that the push for eminence, and the rising costs that go with it, can be a barrier to some students.

"It's our hope that most students will be able to attend, though they may graduate with a greater debt load," he said. "It's a balancing act that we have to engage in and it won't be known for some years whether we made the right or the wrong decision - to maintain quality. And quality costs money."


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