Don't let destructive cuts dim state's future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I AM FROM the state of New York. But because of the University of Maryland, I plan to live in Maryland. I plan to raise a family in Maryland. I plan to work and pay my taxes in Maryland.

It is because of the lack of quality in the New York state public higher-education system that I decided to come and stay in the "Old Line State."

I am not alone. I fear the negligent way in which our state is funding our universities will force the most intelligent and ambitious students to leave Maryland. They call this a "brain drain," and we are beginning to see it develop.

The University System of Maryland is the single greatest resource this great state has. In addition to educating future generations, it serves another purpose: For every dollar the legislature allocates to the University of Maryland, College Park, $5.93 is returned to the state in economic stimulation.

Aside from research, the state universities produce some of the brightest people in the nation, who attract high-tech industries that add to the state's tax revenue base. You need the education before you get the private sector jobs. If I were the CEO of a software company, I would employ those with the greatest knowledge and expertise. Will those employees be from Maryland or Massachusetts? The answer to that lies in the excellence of the public university system.

For those who defend cuts to higher education in the state as a way to save money, I say: You may be right in the short term, but in the end your logic is flawed. One of the reasons California has Silicon Valley is because of the quality of its public higher education. To attain high quality in any university, you need more than just money. But you can't attain quality without money.

The funding we saw in the late 1990s has led to 68 programs being ranked in the Top 25 at our flagship university. In 1988, we had one program in the Top 25. When I was a freshman three years ago, it felt as if the sky was the limit for the state's higher-education system, specifically College Park.

But with state support eroding, depressing figures are starting to develop. For the first time in more than a decade, College Park fell in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of universities nationwide. Although the drop was small and arguably negligible, it has become clear that the lack of funding from the state is leading to the slow yet systematic destruction of all the progress made in higher education.

So how is Annapolis doing in funding our universities? Maryland ranks 38th in dollars invested in higher education compared with per capita income. That saddens me when Maryland ranks fourth in the nation in per capita income. We are a wealthy state, yet we refuse to make education a priority. We can listen to all the political rhetoric and promises in the world, but statistics don't lie.

Tuition is another source for funding any university. But the current tuition at Maryland universities is starting to become unmarketable. After all, Maryland has the sixth-highest tuition rate in the nation. Additionally, middle-income families are beginning to find it difficult to send their children to college because of the higher costs.

It would be a knee-jerk reaction to just set tuition caps, for that would cause severe decreases in quality. This state needs a long-term approach to keep tuition increases under control while ensuring the universities a reasonable level of state funding.

It is in Maryland's best interest to have great centers of knowledge, research, the arts, training and development. Can you imagine what it would mean to Marylanders to have universities at the same level as the University of California, Berkeley?

Higher education must be a priority for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and for the General Assembly, which meets Tuesday to consider overriding the governor's veto of legislation to restore funding to the university system.

Does Maryland want quality and a secure future, or does it want mediocrity?

Aaron Kraus is student body president at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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