Task force offers university system advice on tuition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The University System of Maryland needs to do a better job of justifying tuition increases and telling prospective students what their total college costs will be, an influential state task force has concluded.

But the panel, charged last year by system Chancellor William E. Kirwan with examining the state's tuition policies, stopped short of endorsing more aggressive reforms, like capping tuition, charging more for certain academic majors or assessing higher tuition to wealthier students.

The report by the 14-member task force -- a mix of administrators, students, parents and alumni -- arrives at a pivotal moment for the system's 11 colleges. This fall, students faced the largest tuition increases in system history, as high as 22 percent at some campuses, and some colleges are indicating they might seek double-digit increases again next fall.

The task force report, presented to a subcommittee of the Board of Regents yesterday, concluded that Maryland's public colleges might need further large increases to cope with stagnant state funding.

However, the task force urged that colleges make the increases more predictable so that families are not caught off guard or unable to pay the rising costs. Last year, students were hit with a midyear 5 percent tuition increase in January, a few weeks before the spring term began, and the increases of 20 percent and more this fall came after several years when rate increases had averaged 4 percent.

"The [report] makes it clear that the state will no longer support higher education, and that it's really going to be up to the citizens paying tuition" to pay for colleges, said J. Andrew Canter, a 2003 University of Maryland graduate and former student regent who was on the task force.

Colleges "will have to give much more serious attention to telling students what the future is going to look like rather than surprising them with major hikes every year," he said.

Specifically, the task force recommended that colleges publicize a rolling schedule of what they plan to charge for the next four years, allowing students to anticipate their costs for the length of their college career. The colleges should do their best to stick to that plan, unless budget cuts force them to make larger increases, the task force said.

It said colleges also must do a better job of explaining to students and parents, in detail, why tuition increases are necessary and what they are doing to limit costs.

"If there are large increases, I don't think anything will make people feel good about it," said Kirwan, who welcomed the recommendations. "But it will help people understand that institutions are not just passing on increased costs to students without some institutional effort to hold down costs."

Some outside the system wondered whether colleges would really be able to make tuition more predictable at a time when state funding is so volatile and when some officials see tuition increases as the easiest way to avoid campus cutbacks. "How do you get predictability if you have no idea what government is going to do?" said Edwin S. Crawford, a former regent and chairman of the state's college savings plan.

The best way to make tuition predictable, Crawford added, is for the state's colleges to decide what their priority is -- either being accessible to students or improving their national reputation, a more expensive endeavor.

The task force opted against charging more for majors that lead to lucrative careers because "one should not be guided or forced into a major depending on what it costs," said regent David H. Nevins, a task force member.

Likewise, the panel decided against charging wealthy students a higher rate. Instead, it recommended continuing to funnel some of the tuition paid by better-off students into financial aid for poorer ones.

Thomas G. Mortenson, a higher-education analyst based in Iowa, noted that this approach is effectively not much different from using a sliding tuition scale. But it's more palatable to many families, he said, since it's less evident that those of different incomes are paying different rates. "It doesn't get people as mad at you," he said.

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