Lawmakers consider higher education bill

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland lawmakers are poised to adopt sweeping recommendations this year that eventually could lead to large funding increases for Maryland's public colleges.

But critics say that now is not the time for legislators - already struggling to balance a budget swollen by mandatory education spending - to lay the foundation for other costly requirements. A House of Delegates committee will hold hearings today on a bill supported by Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature's fiscal leaders that would endorse a roughly $760 million blueprint for improving the quality and affordability of Maryland's colleges. On the eve of hearings, supporters hastened to point out that the legislation is a policy prescription and not a spending bill.

"There aren't any mandates in the bill," said its lead sponsor, Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who chaired a commission that developed the recommendations. "This is a 10-year guidepost for higher education."

Among the panel recommendations contained in the bill is pegging college tuition increases to median family income, ensuring that Maryland spends more on higher education than most competitor states, and boosting need-based financial aid by $70 million a year. The bill also recommends giving historically black colleges more money to support their mission of enrolling students who are not prepared to do college-level work.

Critics such as Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Washington County Republican, say that the bill sends the wrong message during an economic crisis and could cause financial problems down the road.

"It lays a marker down, and markers like that do have symbolic value in that they give certain constituents an entitlement that they will not hesitate to call in when economic circumstances improve," Shank said.

Parts of the bill, such as adopting new criteria for judging campus performance or creating a single application for 22 financial aid programs, can be implemented without significant funding increases, Bohanan said.

Neither the legislation nor the commission report identifies new sources of funding for the more costly proposals, among them adherence to a formula that Maryland should rank each year in the top 25 percent in higher education spending among 10 competing states.

"Obviously, that would depend on revenues that we don't have at the moment," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the 13-campus University System of Maryland. "But we've been in periods where there were ample revenues ... and when that happens in the coming years, the funding of these recommendations will get serious attention and that's all you can ask for."

Norman R. Augustine, a former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp. who was vice chairman of the 27-member commission, said the proposal is well-timed because of the current economic crisis.

Support for colleges and universities "was never more important than it is today," said Augustine, who criticized President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus measure for slighting the higher education sector, which prepares students for "knowledge economy" jobs.

"To have a stimulus package that only does the shovel-ready building projects ... raises a question," Augustine said. "When the bridges are built and the trillion dollars are gone, where are Marylanders and Americans going to get jobs?"

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