Maryland's community colleges are bracing for budget cuts from state and county governments, and educators are worried that tuitions might rise at a time when deteriorating economic conditions are driving more students to the traditionally affordable two-year campuses.
Depending on the extent of the belt-tightening, the colleges could respond by increasing tuition or class size, or reducing the number of courses offered at a time of growing student demand, officials said.
"This would be a very unfortunate time to cut funding to community colleges, because now is when people are turning to us as a lower-cost alternative to getting started in higher education," said Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. "Essentially, we would be faced with serving many more students without receiving any additional funding to support those students."
Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to announce in coming days hundreds of millions in spending reductions to the state's $14 billion general fund budget. Among the options suggested by his budget secretary is paring $16.4 million from state support to community colleges, though the actual amount cut could be smaller, officials said.
"There will definitely be a reduction regarding community colleges," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "The size of that reduction is still being determined by the governor."
Meanwhile, some county governments hammered by plummeting real estate-related revenues are also contemplating cutbacks to their community colleges.
Harford County Executive David R. Craig asked Harford Community College to voluntarily give back 5 percent of its $16.8 million county appropriation this fiscal year - and to expect next year's budget to remain flat, he said. Whitlow said colleges in the Washington suburbs have also been told to expect cuts in county funding.
Bernadette Nwonyugbo, 39, a nursing student at Baltimore City Community College, said the rising cost of gasoline and food have already taken their toll on her academic budget and that additional tuition increases would be hard to bear.
"I would tell them not to increase our fees," said Nwonyugbo, who works part-time as an $8-an-hour caregiver at a nursing home. "A lot of students are going to drop out."
Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, said speculation about cuts to the city's community college was premature.
According to data maintained by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, community college enrollment spiked during the last two recessions, in the early 1990s and early 2000s.
"I don't think it takes too much speculation to conclude that part of what's going on there is people are unable to afford a more expensive four-year institution that they might otherwise attend," Whitlow said. "So they look at community colleges as a less expensive way to start their higher education."
The average tuition at a Maryland community college is about $100 a credit-hour or $3,000 annually for a full-time academic program. That's less than half the cost of attending a regional university like Towson University or Morgan State University.
Depending on whom you ask, community colleges' increased popularity during economic recessions either makes them more vulnerable or more resilient to budget cuts.
"I've often said that community college funding should be counter-cyclical," Whitlow said. "Our funding should go up during bad times and level off during good times."
But Craig, the Harford County executive, said increased enrollment could help his county's community college offset cuts from government sources. At $77 per credit hour, Harford Community College's Bel Air campus offers the least expensive college tuition in the state, officials said. Enrollment there has shot up by 4.2 percent this year.
Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said a state funding cut of the magnitude considered by O'Malley would result in "a little pain, but not a lot of pain" for the college.
"We're being very cautious in our approach to this year's budget, but we have no expectation of quickly raising tuition on our students," she said.
Enrollment increases of about 7 percent this year at CCBC will result in a net tuition-revenue "cushion," Kurtinitis said, that could help forestall the impact of government cuts. Not that she welcomes them.
"We're certainly hoping that the budget cuts will not become a reality," Kurtinitis said. "But we fully expect that given the economic free fall that we're in that we will have some impact."
James F. LaCalle, president of Harford Community College, said the Bel Air campus is not in a "draconian budget situation yet" and that he expects to be able to trim its budget this year without layoffs or midyear tuition increases. Next year, however, tuition increases are possible, and LaCalle said he has already decided not to create any new positions.