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Tuition freeze for Maryland schools a sage choice | COMMENTARY

A walkway to dormitories is seen without students during a weekday afternoon in April on the campus of Towson University.
A walkway to dormitories is seen without students during a weekday afternoon in April on the campus of Towson University. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Next Friday, the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents will consider a plan to freeze tuition at all of the state’s public colleges and universities for the upcoming academic year. Such a decision would follow a growing wave of schools nationwide that have recognized that college has become considerably less affordable in 2020 and that a lot of families are struggling to pay their bills. We would strongly encourage the board to take this action. Not just to be helpful to their students but to maintain their critical role in providing a properly educating workforce for an increasingly knowledge-based economy. It is, to put it in our best sweeping term paper language, an investment in Maryland’s future.

This would not be the first time the system has frozen tuition. During the Great Recession, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley froze tuition for four years. It proved a popular decision, and the logic was obvious. Maryland’s annual unemployment rate peaked at 7.7% in 2010. This was considered quite alarming at the time. Some subdivisions, including Baltimore, flirted with double-digit rates. By comparison, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed Maryland’s April unemployment rate at 10.1% and it’s probably much worse given that the national rate hit an all-time high of 14.7% that same month. Whatever financial inconveniences Marylanders faced 13 years ago, they pale to the downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Of course, part of the reason Maryland was able to freeze tuition before was that the governor and legislature were also willing to direct more state tax dollars toward higher education to make up the difference. That may yet become necessary again. But for now, the regents would be well advised to follow a course of belt-tightening to make up the $26 million shortfall from not raising tuition and fees an anticipated 2% this year. Nor can they necessarily count on help from Annapolis where tax revenues are falling and likely to fall further. In these uncertain times, some caution is in order. Schools should be looking to cut costs, preserve jobs whenever possible but not necessarily to grant pay raises, even cost-of-living adjustments. That is unfortunate but these are uncommon times.

Campus salaries are far from the only difficult choices schools face. There is considerable speculation that higher education enrollment nationwide is going to stagnate or decline under the financial strain. Students who might have been headed to four-year schools and on-campus housing may yet opt for more affordable commuter-friendly community colleges. And many parents are wondering: If my child is going to be facing online instruction, whether exclusively or at least partially, am I getting the same bang for the buck? Good question. And it’s not yet clear what the answer may be.

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Maryland’s public colleges and universities have made some good decisions in recent weeks, closing campuses months ago as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, refunding housing and meal payments where appropriate, and even managing the difficult task of reconnecting students with their possession locked up for weeks in otherwise empty dormitories. The reopening presents ever more challenges on how best to maintain social distances and other recommended health precautions while preserving the quality of education. There is no obvious guideline to follow. This requires critical thinking skills, as the undergraduate professors like to say. And they won’t be graded on a curve.

Already there is some upset among higher education’s customers. Lawsuits have been filed against more than one university seeking partial refunds of spring semester tuition observing, for example, that science students lost lab time that can’t be replaced with video conference calls. Meanwhile, what are the chances that the downturn will hit low-income and minority students hardest? College presidents would be wise to closely track their diversity numbers. It would be shameful if, in the middle of a national conversation about systemic racism and inequities brought on by the death of George Floyd, one of the state’s most powerful tools in bridging the divide between have’s and have-not’s took a big step backward, even if unintentionally.

Admittedly, a tuition freeze is just a bandage. College affordability remains a major issue in this country, pandemic or not. Student debt is ridiculously high. And how the nation can address this growing crisis ought to be front and center in the coming presidential election. Throw in the future of online learning and the role of state government to provide a pathway toward post-secondary-school education and job training to all residents and there are some tough policy choices to be made. Yet for the immediate future, not making matters worse with an ill-timed tuition hike might just be good enough.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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