After two years of deliberation and study, a state commission unveiled yesterday sweeping recommendations that Maryland greatly increase funding for public colleges, with particular emphasis on addressing low graduation rates at the state's four historically black campuses.
The roughly $760 million proposal appears ill-timed, given Maryland's projected billion-dollar budget shortfall. And some recommendations that might be greeted enthusiastically by parents and students, such as pegging tuition increases to median family income, might be difficult to enact in the short term.
Among other high-priced recommendations are a call to ensure that Maryland spends more on higher education than most competitor states, boosts need-based financial aid by $70 million a year and gives historically black colleges more money to support their mission of enrolling students who are not prepared to do college-level work.
But political leaders in Annapolis reacted favorably yesterday to the recommendations and said that some could be implemented immediately, even in a budget-slashing legislative session. Among those are creating a single application for 22 financial aid programs and requiring the state to publish an online "progress report" that holds campuses accountable for the money they receive, said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., the St. Mary's County Democrat who chaired the 27-member panel.
Gov. Martin O'Malley "is generally supportive of the recommendations" but "funding will obviously be an issue," said spokesman Rick Abbruzzese.
Maryland is the second-wealthiest state when ranked by median family income but 21st in the nation in higher education spending, according to the commission report released yesterday. The state is a net exporter of college-bound students - especially its most talented ones - and colleges here "are not yet of the overall caliber required to sustain Maryland's current position in providing jobs in the global knowledge economy," the report said.
"The fact is, we do not compare favorably in terms of our investment in higher education by almost any measure," said Norman R. Augustine, a former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. who was vice chairman of the commission and is a member of the University System of Maryland's governing Board of Regents.
House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch said the Bohanan report would function as a budget "road map" when the economy improves. In the meantime, "We're going to do everything we can to take these recommendations and move forward."
The report's conclusions are based on the commission's finding that Maryland's economic competitiveness is threatened by the state's insufficient investment in higher education compared with 10 "competitor states": California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. The Department of Business and Economic Development has identified those states as the ones with which Maryland primarily competes for desirable employers.
Unlike spending for K-12 public schools, higher education funding in Maryland is not mandated by any formula, making it among the largest items of discretionary spending in the governor's budget and subject to constant fluctuation.
The Commission to Develop the Maryland Model for Funding Higher Education was set up by the legislature in 2006 to come up with a "consistent and stable funding mechanism" for public colleges that would make funding - and therefore tuition increases - more predictable.
Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat and former university system regent, said yesterday that he plans to introduce legislation to force the governor to implement the spending increases.
"I think the commission recommendations are generally very good, but they will come to naught if they are not converted into mandated formula under state law," Rosapepe said. He said the "Bohanan formula" would take several years to implement.
Bohanan, meanwhile, took pains yesterday to insist that the recommendations are just that. "It is not a mandate. This is not Thornton," Bohanan said, referring to a funding law for K-12 education that many blame for budget problems that have plagued the state for years.
Bohanan said he does not think there is support in the General Assembly for any additional funding formulas. "If anything, we'll be scaling back the number of mandates," he said.
Rosapepe, however, said he is optimistic that he could get a bill through Annapolis. "Nobody thought we could pass Thornton," he said, crediting that law with recent test score increases across the state. "Investing in public education works."
This fiscal year, the state appropriated about $1.1 billion in general funds to state-supported institutions of higher education, an increase over previous years that has allowed the University System of Maryland to freeze tuition at its 11 campuses.
But the budget crisis now has the governor focused on cuts, and O'Malley has not ruled out tuition increases next year.
University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan said yesterday that he does not know whether tuition and fees will rise.
"We're just beginning our discussions with the state," Kirwan said. "But if there is an increase ... it will be very modest."
The Commission to Develop the Maryland Model for Funding Higher Education recommended yesterday that the state:
* Ensure that Maryland every year ranks in the top fourth in higher education spending among 10 competing states.
* Establish a permanent Higher Education Investment Fund.
* Create a single application for all 22 state financial aid programs.
* Link in-state tuition to Maryland's median family income.
* Develop a statewide accountability program that enables the public to determine whether public colleges are improving.
* Increase funding for remedial education at historically black colleges.