Crossroads for colleges


GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s promise of a badly needed 5.7 percent funding increase for Maryland's university system next fiscal year will help the state's public colleges keep pace with inflation -- after several years of losing ground. Not incidentally, it enabled the governor to avert a legislative override of his veto of a bill to increase funds for higher education by raising the corporate income tax rate. OK, for now.

But the 11th-hour, one-year funding commitment doesn't begin to address the critical long-term issue: What kind of public higher-education system do Marylanders need -- and how should that be financed?

For one of the wealthiest and most highly educated states in nation -- a leader in research and development -- the answer to the first part of that question is obvious: Nothing less than first-class public colleges, from the University of Maryland to community colleges, should suffice for this state's knowledge-based economy. How else can Maryland stay competitive and grow?

The second part of the question -- how Maryland should pay for that excellence -- is much more difficult. Put very simply, public colleges across the country are moving in opposite directions: One set, exemplified by California and North Carolina, has high state support and relatively low tuition. Another, exemplified by Michigan, has lower state support with higher tuition.

In the past, Maryland has been in between, with moderate state support and low tuition. But now it's at a crossroads. After suffering deep cuts, Maryland has been sliding toward the Michigan approach -- with the state now providing, for the first time, less than half of the university system's total budget and with tuition at public colleges having been raised almost 30 percent.

This translates to lessened access to advanced education by Maryland's bright but lower-income students, a trend hardly in the interests of state employers. If it persists, the state's flagship school, the University of Maryland, College Park, would increasingly become, in essence, a private school -- one with rising quality but falling state support and tuition too high for too many.

So much flows from the state funding issue: colleges' quality aspirations, tuition levels, accessibility. Unfortunately, these long-term questions have not received priority in Annapolis -- even as the state university system now projects a 20 percent increase in demand for undergraduate enrollment over the next five years.

While University System of Maryland officials welcome next year's 5.7 percent state budget increase, many other states are coming out of the national recession with much sharper increases in funding for higher education. Even in strapped California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is holding the line on new taxes, he just proposed a 7.3 percent rise in higher-education funding.

Last legislative session, state Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, proposed a two-year commission that, like the Thornton Commission for K-12 education, would sort out long-term strategies for funding higher education in Maryland. Such a panel -- lost in the governor's veto -- would provide a much-needed focus on defining Maryland's support for its public colleges. This legislative session, it must be approved -- so much of the state's future is riding on it.

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